Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Geotripper Goes to the Movies: Review of Unconformity (2022)

Copyright: Jonathan DiMaio
One of my earliest blog posts, back in 2008, was a top-ten list of the depiction of geologists in movies. I've revisited it a few times, most recently in 2018 when I added in the movie "San Andreas" (the real hero in the movie was Paul Giamatti's role as a geologist, not the Rock). It seems I need to update that list once again. An independent movie was released last year called "Unconformity", and it has perhaps the most honest depiction of a geologist that I've seen in film. Directed and produced by Jonathan DiMaio, it is the story of Alex (portrayed by Alex Oliver), a young woman graduate student who is dealing with betrayal and misogyny in her academic pursuits. A series of events leads her to doing research alone in some of the most deserted parts of the Basin and Range in eastern Nevada. Along the way she develops a friendship with a young man Nick (Jack Mulhern), who works a nearby ranch with his father. It's a quiet reflective movie, and it's a credit to the director and writer that the developing friendship is not the usual stereotypical romance, but more a growing understanding between two people who are hurting. 

Copyright: Jonathan DiMaio
The cinematography is simply astounding, with broad sweeping vistas of some of the wildest parts of North America. I caught glimpses of the House Range with the sheer cliff of Notch Peak (where I actually did some field work in my graduate school days), and the Snake Range with Wheeler Peak, the centerpiece of the very remote Great Basin National Park. The movie's unobtrusive soundtrack nicely compliments the wilderness landscape.

Copyright: Jonathan DiMaio

Now, about the geology. Most movies simply assume that the viewer is ignorant and won't care about the particulars of the science detailed in the movie. The Tom Hanks-produced miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" had an episode ("Galileo Was Right") that was one of the best depictions of a geologist I've ever seen. It involved the efforts of Professor Lee Silver to train the Apollo astronauts to explore the moon with the eyes of a geologist, and it captured the essence that drives geologists to want to understand geologic processes and history. But it was so jarring in that episode to see a geologist refer to what was clearly a chunk of olivine basalt as simply "granite". That doesn't happen in DiMaio's movie.

Copyright: Jonathan DiMaio
Alex is shown doing field work, using a Brunton compass more or less properly, using topographic maps to plot geology, and measuring stratigraphic sections. She uses the proper end of the rock hammer when getting and preparing rock samples. She is shown making thin sections of rock samples (the thin section images of minerals used in the opening credits are beautiful). Her profound discovery is plausible (finding fossils of the Ediacaran fauna) given the regional geology of where she was working, and the implications of her discovery are clearly explained in the movie. This leads to a better understanding of why her thesis advisor would have been inclined to take advantage of her work by taking credit for it. The fossils themselves are accurate as to species, and genuine-looking in the movie (although just a bit 'too' perfect?).

Notch Peak in the House Range of western Utah has a sheer cliff more than half a mile high.Copyright: Jonathan DiMaio 
In total, the movie is a nice diversion for anyone who enjoys character-driven dramas, but it's extra special for the geologists out there who pine away for an accurate portrayal of a geologist in the cinema. It is streaming now on Prime Video, and can also be watched on YouTube with the link below.

Unconformity Film (film website)

www.jonathandimaio.com (director's website)

Unconformity (2022) | Full Movie - YouTube

Watch Unconformity | Prime Video (amazon.com)

In closing, a quick apology to Mr. DiMaio. He wrote me about the movie over a year ago, offering to let me see an advance copy, but the email ended up lost for most of last year. I regret not seeing the movie earlier. Check it out!