What does it take for an uptight science geek to get the hot girl? Apparently, it's all about geo-engineering. Ladies love it when you terraform the Earth!
Especially when you transform a local ecosystem and introduce a whole new species that's completely unsuited to its new home. In Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, in theaters today, Emily Blunt falls for Ewan McGregor's scientist character, who's so uptight he's described as having Asperger's, because he is able to help upset the balance of nature. Spoilers ahead...
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday was one of my favorite books of 2007, with its extremely weird premise. In the book, an eccentric, super-rich Sheikh who's obsessed with salmon-fishing decides to transform a stretch of Yemen into a duplicate of a Scottish river, and then introduce Scottish salmon so he can fish for them there. A stuffy scientist, Dr. Alfred Jones, is recruited to help make the scheme happen, and it quickly becomes a huge public relations boondoggle as the British government tries to find an upbeat news story from the Middle East.
Here's what I wrote about the book back in 2007, when I reviewed it for the now-defunct other magazine:
I just got done reading Salmon Fishing, and it's much as you'd expect: a bit silly, a bit political, a bit poetic. But the delightful surprise is that it takes the science seriously, and puts it front and center. The challenges of transporting salmon from Scotland to Yemen, oxygenating the water tanks at the right temperature, and convincing the salmon to swim upstream in the Yemeni wadi, all tax the ingeniuity of Fred Jones. (Also, as a Samuel Richardson fangirl, I appreciated the book's reliance on epistolary narrative.) On the minus side, Salmon Fishing's characters are all a bit one-note, and it skips the chance to talk about the ecological implications of humans casually introducing species from one part of the world to another.
But Salmon Fishing is a fun, thought-provoking read. And bottom line, its scientist protagonist is a sci-fi explorer, as much as Robert Heinlein's maxim-spoutingest spacefarer, except that he's exploring the outer reaches of fisheries management. And that's kind of cool.
It shouldn't shock anybody that the movie version of Salmon Fishing, in select theaters today, is less focused on the science than the book is. All of the scientific challenges of moving salmon around the world and getting them to survive in a very different environment are still talked about, but there's a fair bit of hand-waving involved — which is probably for the best, since watching people discuss water oxygenation levels for an hour probably wouldn't make for as compelling a movie. The film is also quite a bit more sentimental than the book, and has a more upbeat ending — plus the tart political satire of the book is turned into something a lot broader and more farcical on screen.
And most of all, the story is turned into much more of a romance in the movie version — I remember a smidgen of romance in the book, but it's not really the book's main focus. In the movie, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is stuck in a loveless marriage with a frosty career woman who's always running off to Zurich for months at a time. And then when he's strong-armed into working on the salmon project, he meets Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), a sexy, sassy investment banker whose soldier boyfriend has just been apparently killed in action in Afghanistan.
So to a large extent, the movie's two intertwined questions become: 1) Can you really transplant salmon, those delicate finicky creatures, to the Yemeni wadi and have them not only survive but swim upstream as well? 2) Can a dry-as-dust scientist (who admittedly looks like Ewan McGregor) win the heart of a sexy/classy upper-class lady like Emily Blunt? The movie is not shy at all about comparing these two projects, in their equal levels of implausibility and heroic accomplishment. The message is: If you can completely transform a landscape and impose your will on nature, then you can totally get the girl.
So the Yemen project, which really is shown to be akin to terraforming, is like a sexual conquest. Alfred Jones' salmon must survive so that they can leap out of the water and penetrate the virgin waters of the Yemeni wadi, obeying their fundamental spawning instinct. If, and only if, Alfred Jones' salmon succeed in fertilizing the pure untouched lands of Yemen, then Alfred himself has a chance of doing the same thing to Harriet. Not since Shakespeare have sluices had so much sexual symbolism attached to them.
One area where the movie does have an advantage over the book is that you actually get to see the scale of this project, including the massive dams required to try and create a Scottish-style river in the Yemen, and the temperature controlled tanks, and the sluices and so on. Ah, the sluices.
Where was I?
Ah yes, so it's akin to terraforming part of our own planet — a massive geo-hacking project that recreates the landscape according to your recollections of a very different place. And even though this is a huge engineering undertaking that involves a lot of improbable science, it's portrayed as a work of faith. The Sheikh, who's bankrolling the whole thing to the tune of 50 million pounds or so, is constantly talking about the importance of having faith and believing in a higher purpose.
And in fact, some of the most interesting parts of the movie involve Alfred's discussions with the Sheikh over faith versus rationality — Alfred, as a rational skeptic, doesn't really believe that this project is ever going to work, even as he comes up with solutions to make it happen. Meanwhile, the Sheikh keeps describing it as a leap of faith, making a desert burst with life as a way of glorifying God. (At left is Alfred's early diagram where he explains how this project will probably end up with a bunch of dead fish.)
The idea that a huge, artificial project to rewrite the face of nature could be a tribute to God — while someone who insists that you can't toy with nature is skeptical and rationalist — is sort of provocative, and the film is at its best when it's playing with this conundrum.
All in all, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a reasonably diverting romantic comedy that occasionally nods towards some interesting issues about the role of humans in nature, and the implications of tampering with our own environment. It's also a nice story about a heroic scientist who becomes a sexy leading man because he is good at science — which is something you don't see every day. The movie is definitely not as good, or as interesting, as the book. But it's still a fun, thought-provoking ride, and worth checking out if it comes to your town. Probably a good date movie — especially for nerds who are looking to get lucky.