Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to quantum film

The term “quantum” has been popularised by the media and popular culture in recent years. A subject of great fascination and confusion, quantum physics has also attracted artists and filmmakers. The danger here is that in the process of artistic interpretation, the meaning behind the scientific theory is lost. The term “quantum” is often thrown around without appropriate context and definition, and scientists are frustrated as this results in misunderstanding of the underlying science. Many people referencing quantum physics are ill-informed, creating tenuous links where arguably no such connections exist or using jargon designed to impress or confuse rather than say anything of value. Examples include the use of the term “quantum healing” in “medical” self-help books and Valerie Laws’ “Quantum Sheep” poetry. Often, the word is exploited in order to give the author a sense of superiority: “quantum” in many cases becomes synonymous with “magic”, or in the case of Laws’ poetry, “randomness”.

So, what is quantum physics? In a nutshell, quantum physics studies the behaviour of tiny particles. These particles frequently behave in ways which cannot be explained by classical physics, therefore requiring an entirely new understanding of physical reality. At the foundation of quantum physics is wave-particle duality. In the early 20th century, the results of different experiments produced conflicting data regarding the nature of light. Under certain conditions light would behave as a wave, and under others, a particle. Both results were accurate, meaning that the nature of light (and matter) ultimately depends on the conditions of its measurement. The supposed objectivity of scientific measurement was therefore undermined, as physicists believed it was impossible for matter to share properties of both waves and particles. This paradoxical discovery, along with developments in Einstein’s theory of relativity, undermined the absolutism of classical physics and scientists’ understanding of space and time, and reality itself.

It is easy to see why so many disciplines have been drawn to and adopted quantum concepts. The science is philosophically evocative and invites visualisation. Thinking about film, for instance, one can identify many areas of crossover between the fields. Terms such as observation, light, time, space, reality are used interchangeably between the disciplines of physics and film. It is possible, for example, to argue the similarities between the concept of observation in scientific experiments, and spectatorship in cinema. Both scientist and spectator are observing and interpreting data through the reality being presented to them. Spectatorship in film is often self-reflexive and explored through restricted (as opposed to omniscient) narration, whereby we subjectively observe and experience alongside the protagonist. Often, in films such as The Matrix (1999), Fight Club (1999), and Shutter Island (2010), this subjective point of view results in a representation of reality that is ambiguous or misleading. This resonates with the observer’s position in quantum physics, in which the act of observation changes the outcome of an experiment.

Figure 1

This concept of the misrepresentation of reality is explored in Inception (2010). The film explores the characters’ complex relationship with the nature of reality through a series of dream worlds. This speaks to concepts of quantum physics when protagonist Cobb uses a totem to determine dreams from reality. Cobb’s spinning top totem (Fig. 1) will continue to spin endlessly in a dream, and will fall in reality. This image is evocative of the viewer’s own struggles to determine the ambiguity of reality in films. The spinning top is reminiscent of the wave-particle duality which philosophically suggests that before the moment of observation, light can be thought of in two states simultaneously. Likewise, until the totem falls, Cobb can be thought of as superposed in both dream and reality.

Quantum physics holds vast potential for extending and illuminating the arts and humanities. However, Elizabeth Leane warns of the dangers of reductionism, arbitrary metaphor, and lazy rhetoric which typify the appropriation of quantum physics (414), and challenges the quality of source material informing so-called ‘quantum criticism’ (416). She demonstrates the extent to which concepts of quantum physics can be reduced to themes, and this oversimplification leads to unconvincing and ambiguous analogies. A key issue is the risk of anthropomorphism. Gillian Beer argues that ‘language is anthropocentric’ (160): we are only able to understand the workings of the world around us in language which relates to specifically human experience. Therefore, one must be careful to avoid any claim that suggests that microscopic particles function in the same way as human beings or society. Hence, the confusion over words such as “entanglement”, which has a dual meaning in everyday language, and in the field of physics. Although these scholars raise valid concerns, I find their approach rather too conservative and austere when it comes to articulating how scientific concepts shape popular culture, and film in particular.

Fortunately, there are scholars who argue that it is possible to bridge the sciences and humanities without being unhelpfully reductive (Karen Barad (2007) and Sonia Front (2001), for example). These scholars use philosophy as an interdisciplinary tool to read physics and humanities through one another. They examine the extent to which quantum physics’ undermining of our understanding of reality has led to a ‘shift in perspective in mathematics, linguistics, philosophy, art, cinema and literature’ (Front 21). This can be understood as a ‘cultural revolution’ (Front 22) whereby the arts and humanities seek to engage with a new concepts of reality and time. By using philosophy as an interdisciplinary bridge, it becomes possible to read the resonances between science and humanities without being reductive. It is perhaps inevitable that in the process of interdisciplinary experimentation some works will be overly anthropomorphic or reductionist in their interpretation of quantum theory: let’s just put it all down to experience as filmmakers seek ways to bring these two realms of experience together!

Contemporary scientific discoveries have often been a source of inspiration for art and fiction; with science-fiction books, films, and television series displaying a cultural fascination with developments in popular science. The appropriation of quantum physics by popular culture emerged in the late 1980s: one of the earliest examples is the television series Quantum Leap (1989). In Quantum Leap, scientist Sam Becket “leaps” from one body to another throughout history. This demonstrates an anthropomorphic interpretation of quantum leaping, which describes the behaviour of electrons jumping between orbits of an atom. The series, therefore, engaged very little with scientific theory beyond reductionist metaphors and allegory. However, the series can be considered a foundation for future development of similar concepts. Despite its flaws, Quantum Leap is intrinsic to the understanding of contemporary fascination with quantum physics in popular culture.

Figure 2

More recent examples suggest that significant effort is being made by filmmakers to understand and apply quantum physics to fiction in an informed way. Some recent examples of science fiction films which integrate quantum physics in a more complex way include Donnie Darko (2001), Coherence (2013) and Interstellar (2014). These films are arguably more realistic (relatively speaking) and use existing physics and scientific theory as a basis for their fictional narratives. Indeed, many films now hire expert consultants in order to ensure the accuracy of scientific theory used in the film narrative. Interstellar is a notable example (Fig. 2). For this film Christopher Nolan hired Kip Thorne – theoretical physicist and 2017 Nobel laureate, whose research includes black holes, wormholes and time-travel – as a consultant. In Interstellar, Nolan is careful to maintain relative scientific accuracy whilst engaging with complex concepts. Similarly, blockbuster Marvel films Ant-Man (2015) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)examine the fictional possibilities of quantum physics, specifically through the fictional “quantum realm” which Ant-Man enters when he shrinks down to a subatomic scale. Avengers: Endgame (2019) also self-reflexively engages with quantum through time-travel; presenting it as a tired cliché in popular culture and referencing existing science-fiction (including Quantum Leap) in order to challenge unrealistic past depictions of time travel.

However, science-fiction is not where the possibilities end for quantum film. As previously mentioned, Inception engages with quantum concepts philosophically as opposed to claiming scientific accuracy. Other examples of films which evoke quantum theory in a philosophical register include The Time-Traveller’s Wife (2009), which explores time-travel and entanglement through the theme of love; A Serious Man (2009), which references Schrodinger’s cat paradox as well as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; and Cloud Atlas (2012), which is a complex portrait of entanglement across time and multiple universes.

Double Life of Veronique (1991) also uses philosophy to engage with the concept of entanglement in quantum physics through film language. The narrative of Double Life of Veronique explores the entangled lives of two women who look identical but are not related to each other. In a key scene (Fig. 3) Veronique stares out of a bus window through a clear rubber ball, and sees the world upside-down. The cinematography and use of reflection in the window, and convex upside-down reflection through the ball, metaphorically connects the two women whose beings are entangled, but who do not meet. When Weronika dies, Veronique is affected emotionally, feeling grief without understanding why. These films display anthropomorphic interpretations of quantum physics using anthropocentric film language and metaphor and in doing so produce intimate film narratives of interwoven human lives and emotions which allow for reflection and encourage cross-disciplinary thinking.

Figure 3

Leane would argue that this kind of anthropomorphic approach to quantum is misleading. However, I believe anthropocentric metaphor and philosophy are, perhaps, the only way for mass culture to engage with concepts which go beyond macro reality. In most cases, the film’s (and other arts’) engagements with concepts of popular science are a constructive way of forming a bridge between the arts, humanities and sciences. Rather than consider this method “reductionist”, one might instead consider it as a necessary precursor to interdisciplinary engagement. The international Quantum Art Movement, which aspires to ‘reconcile science and art’, is a good example of this kind of positive interdisciplinary engagement.

It is precisely through collaboration across supposedly polarised disciplines that we allow for original thought and progress across all disciplines involved. By using methodologies from other disciplines, one can redefine boundaries, and create synthesis across research areas. It also allows for those in different fields of interest to expand their own thinking. In relation to quantum physics and film, interdisciplinary thinking allows for viewers to think critically about the nature of reality and the universe, and for scientists to experience artistic visualisation and creative expression of contemporary theories. Film’s accessibility allows for wider audiences to become aware of revolutionary new ways of thinking by informing and inspiring.


Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Beer, Gillian. Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Front, Sonia. Shapes of Time in Twentieth Century Quantum Fiction. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. Print.

Leane, Elizabeth. “Knowing Quanta: The Ambiguous Metaphors of Popular Physics”. The Review of English Studies, 52. 207 (2001): 411-431.

Leane, Elizabeth. Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

QAM. QAM – Quantum Art Movement. Web. 10 Jun. 2020.

Written by Elinor Holly Jenkins (2020); Queen Mary, University of London
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Copyright ©2020 Elinor Holly Jenkins/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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