Watching Films Through the Eyes of an Anthropologist

Professor Nathaniel Dominy reviews box-office takes on society and human behavior.

Movie buffs can find Nathaniel Dominy, the Charles Hansen Professor of Anthropology, weighing in on films currently at the box office in reviews recently published in the journals Science and Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Dominy and colleague Catherine Hobaiter at the University of St. Andrews write about the British thriller Out of Darkness in the Feb. 26 issue of Nature Ecology and Evolution. The film centers on six Paleolithic humans searching for a safe home as they contend with mysterious dangers and their own fear of each other.


Nathaniel Dominy
Professor Nathaniel Dominy

"The trailer generated a lot of buzz among paleoanthropologists, and I was intrigued enough to ask the production company for a screener," Dominy says. "I was surprised when they agreed and doubly surprised with the exceptional quality of the film. It is outstanding in many respects."

The Hop will host an April 19 screening of Out of Darkness, followed by a discussion with Dominy, Professor and Chair of Anthropology Jeremy DeSilva, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Raquel Fleskes, and Associate Professor of Anthropology Zaneta Thayer '08.

In the March 7 issue of Science, Dominy writes about Ibelin, a documentary screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival about a Norwegian gamer who died at age 25 from a rare genetic disorder. Dominy's piece is part of "Science at Sundance," the journal's annual roundup of Sundance films with scientific themes.

In Ibelin, the titular subject's parents worry that he was wasting his remaining life playing games online, only to realize to their great sorrow after his death that he was a beloved and dynamic personality. "As a parent, I can relate to their perspective in the opening act of this film," Dominy says. "I probably would've reacted the same way and also regretted it."

Film reviews are both challenging and liberating, Dominy says. "Most scientists share their findings through scientific papers, a formulaic medium that worships at the altar of concision and muted enthusiasm," he says. "But a film review can take many different forms. Scientists are not usually trained to write this way and I have to resist many of my go-to writing habits."
He also contributed to Science's 2023 Sundance reviews with write-ups about the futuristic romantic comedy, The Pod Generation, and the documentary Fantastic Machine. His first foray into film reviews was a 2019 science-themed review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters in Science that he wrote with Professor of Biological Sciences Ryan Calsbeek

"The films assigned to me have each revolved around our human relationship with technology and its effects on our social behaviors," he says. "It is a theme with cross-cutting importance in anthropology, including for researchers like me who focus on human evolution."

While he enjoys the creativity of these writing projects, Dominy plans to take a break to focus on his research, though he does have his eye on this year's remake of Nosferatu and says: "Vampire lore is a rich and interesting topic!"