WHEN: 3:30 pm EST, March 23rd, 2013
WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: I am fully caffeinated and pumped for this viewing. I just got back from a work-related meeting and it has inspired me to be fully attentive.
Hey, you know what’s great when you’re providing interventions for a specific population of people? Utilizing evidence-based practices. This was the topic of my work meeting and it got me all fired up about science and research. Which, in turn, motivated me to look at The NeverEnding Story and try to determine if it is pro- or anti-science. Film is an important piece of a child’s development. Children learn and emulate the lessons given to them by the media they are exposed to. If The NeverEnding Story is against scientific reasoning and thought, then I might question showing it to my own hypothetical child.
First, let’s look at the one scientist featured in the film: Engywook.
The face of reason in a world populated by luckdragons and racing snails.
Engywook is the preeminent scientist in the field of Southern Oraclology. Or something. He’s studied the Southern Oracle for decades and plans on writing “A Century of Studying the Southern Oracle by Professor Engywook.” He has a book of meticulous drawings and an observatory with a telescope. He seems to be a legitimate scientist in a world of fantasy. However, there are hints that he’s also a kook. Atreyu asks Engywook if he’s ever been to the Southern Oracle. Engywook replies rather cryptically saying, “What do you think? I work scientifically.” It’s unclear whether he means he has gone to the Southern Oracle because he’s a good scientist, or that he has never been because he works through observation and anecdotal evidence only. Later, he mentions that if Atreyu gets through the two gates, that he will be able to get Engywook “the final information for my book.” Now it’s clear that Engywook has never been to the Southern Oracle and that his research is based on reported data. Basically, he’s a poor example of a scientist.
There’s more evidence that Engywook is played as a foolish scientist. There’s his telescope which is constructed of beakers filled with colored water and various crystals. It may work on principles of magic because its construction makes no logical sense.
But it is one bitchin’ kaleidoscope.
Engywook also talks about the gates that Atreyu must pass in order to reach the Southern Oracle. According to Engywook, The Sphinx Gate only lets people through who feel their own worth. Slow down there, Dr. Seligman. How does a gate measure self-worth? And how did Engywook figure this out? In order to weed out the possible qualities that each candidate had, Engywook would need to conduct an interview and maintain an inventory of character traits as reported by the questing hero. Engywook would then need to eliminate possibilities each time a person going through the gate died. It’s not really clear how many heroes have attempted to get through the gate, but decades of watching people being obliterated seems a morbid way to collect data. Anyways, trying to quantify a specific trait for the Sphinx Gate and, further along, the Magic Mirror Gate, is a poor example of a well-executed scientific study. Also, Atreyu has a freak-out and loses any sense of self-worth, yet manages to run past the Sphinxes to live another day. So, self-worth can suck it. Perhaps Engywook is less hard scientist and more of an anthropologist or an historian. Either way, his methods do not provide a hugely favorable view of science.
Back in the ordinary world, Bastian hates math. He draws unicorns on his homework, and when he arrives late to see a math test in progress, spending time in a dusty attic with questionable reading material looks like paradise to him. Bastian’s dad encourages him to keep his head out of the clouds and to keep both feet on the ground. While his father means well by this suggestion, Bastian’s father is promoting emotional neutering, not scientific reasoning. Bastian also suffers from being a “weirdo” according to the three bullies who want his lunch money. Bastian may be considered odd because of his imagination and desire to read books with chapters. Bastian is the epitome of imagination and fantasy. As the protagonist, he does not promote rational thinking, but instead shuns any concepts that hamper his escapist fantasies.
Bastian doesn’t want to be put in a box.
Since Bastian’s character is so fantasy driven, we can only assume that he’d rather stick to his 186 fiction books rather than read any non-fiction novels. There’s no On the Origin of Species or The Gay Science in the list he rattles off to Mr. Koreander. Then again, Bastian is young and his reading choices are certainly at an advanced reading level. Perhaps he’ll make his way into non-fiction at some point in his life. Or maybe not at all, since a fantasy book comes to life and spills over into his ordinary world. Bastian’s entire experience could have two outcomes. First, he delves into magic, pseudosciences, and other hokum like reiki with zeal since he knows that fantastical creatures exist. Or, he charges into biology, medicine, psychology, and meteorology to explain his experiences to himself and others. My hope would be for the latter.
In the end, while The NeverEnding Story does not promote traditional, evidence-based practices, it does promote the most important part of any scientific field: imagination. Scientific progress occurs when people continue to question the world around them. Bastian, instead of committing to the life his father wants, takes a chance and is willing to think outside the prescribed boundaries of his world. Questioning the establishment is what science is all about. Science is willing to admit when it is wrong and change its views based on new evidence. The NeverEnding Story encourages children to not only read (which is the key to staying informed), but also to think and to imagine possibilities beyond the tiny scope of the universe we see.