For the legions of elementary and middle school students who spent hours in science labs or living rooms watching “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” the goofy, bow-tied host at the show’s center might as well be a superhero. With his labcoat and legendary “inertia is a property of matter” earworm, he even has a cape and his own theme song. Two decades after the show left the airwaves, the state of the national scientific discourse has been Nye’s bat-signal, luring him back into the public eye.
As a result, “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” the latest from “The Immortalists” duo David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, isn’t as much about the man himself as it is the world that he feels still needs him. The main thrust of Alvarado and Sussberg’s documentary centers on the grey area of the current scientific landscape that Nye currently occupies. Verging on being pigeonholed as the designated explainer on issues ranging from global carbon dioxide levels to the basic validity of the scientific method, even Nye wrestles with the idea that, for some audiences, his continual involvement in certain debates with science skeptics might be counterproductive.
For those curious if last year’s election results manage to seep in here as well, the film does posit both members of last year’s GOP ticket as prime culprits in creating an “anti-science” atmosphere that necessitates Nye’s recent work. But Alvarado and Sussberg save far more attention for two prominent Nye foes: creationist impresario Ken Ham and resident Fox News climatological consultant Joe Bastardi.
In tackling the information behind creationism and climate change denial, Nye’s efforts take different tacks. Footage from the prep and aftermath of an infamous 2014 debate with Ham gives a more private angle on a discussion widely available online. What gives more insight into Nye’s efforts and outlook are the more private conversations with Bastardi. Nye’s long been a science advocate, but seeing him in a fresh element as a person-to-person crusader lends the most credence to the idea that Nye is a necessary figure in the current scientific landscape.
Alvarado and Sussberg’s film is another in the recent tradition of environmental docs that detail the science world’s increasing need for a more efficient PR presence. Docs like “An Inconvenient Truth” and recent Sundance film “Chasing Coral” are designed more for the apathetic to shock them into action. “Bill Nye: Science Guy” seems aimed at energizing the casual observers, those scores of students who spent rainy days watching Nye’s bowling ball demonstrations but aren’t sure how to carry those lessons towards a greater purpose.
For a show that formed the basis of Nye’s widespread appeal, endearing him to hoards of sign-waving, iPhone-toting superfans, “Bill Nye: Science Guy” actually spends precious little time on the syndicated smash hit. The small glimpses we get from the show’s writers and producers hint at an ego-driven disconnect that never made it through to the finished product. (Alvarado and Sussberg even includes footage from a never-aired pilot with another production company that mercifully didn’t derail the show’s eventual form.)
As the film continually places Nye at the forefront of a generation of would-be scientists, it also places his media achievements in the context of his predecessors. An obvious reference point for the TV show, “Bill Nye: Science Guy” also details the personal connection to Carl Sagan that helped to ignite Nye’s passion for science and the medium that helped bring him to prominence. Capturing Nye and fellow go-to TV scientist Neil DeGrasse-Tyson in a moment of self-reflection over a glass of wine provides a nice counterpoint to both of their behind-a-podium demeanors.
Occasionally, “Bill Nye: Science Guy” also offers windows into Nye’s more curmudgeonly tendencies. Known for his constant cheery on-screen disposition, Alvarado and Sussberg also sprinkle in moments of frustration, like Nye’s increasing exasperation at the inefficiency of selfie seekers. (A proposed addendum to the old adage: never meet your heroes or try to take pictures with them while both of you are walking.)
But for every scene that pokes holes in the myth of Nye as the cuddly TV scientist, we get equally elusive tidbits about the personal struggles that complicate his non-science relationships. In particular, his conversation with neuroscientist Heather Berlin about the nature of fame evolves into a incredibly revealing episode of self-psychoanalysis. It’s the kind of insight into this self-made expert that a parade of audience plaudits can’t quite duplicate.
Filtered through Nye’s perspective, “Bill Nye: Science Guy” ends up retracing the path of similarly minded advocacy stories. Some on-location bits, like the one showing Nye at a Greenland-area ice core collection station, feel more like a test case for him as science’s Anthony Bourdain than a revealing look at the man behind the neckwear. What really shines through here is the moments where the old instincts kick in. Towards the end of the film, as Nye marvels at a rocket launch, he can’t help but narrate various steps in the ignition process, describing the chemical reactions leading to what everyone’s seeing. While “Bill Nye: Science Guy” may not spend all its time on the man himself, it proves that the guy behind “Science rules!” hasn’t gone anywhere.
“Bill Nye: Science Guy” is playing in the Documentary Spotlight section of SXSW 2017. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.