January 06, 2010

Cold (Fusion) War: The Saint

Scientists have come up with many wacky ideas in the search for new forms of energy. The Department of Energy has even decided to throw money at people with off-the-wall ideas in the hopes that some of them will work. This creative impulse has also inspired filmmakers who need a good plot device to set a thriller in motion (see The Man with the Golden Gun and Will's forthcoming review of Chain Reaction). Today I'm reviewing 1997's The Saint, which deals with cold fusion, an energy process that would theoretically allow for a limitless source of nuclear energy created on small surfaces at room temperatures.

Val Kilmer stars as Simon Templar, an orphan turned thief-for-hire who uses the names of Catholic saints for aliases. That doesn’t seem like a terribly sophisticated system, but man, does he have those Scotland Yard detectives stumped. Simon is proficient in the usual Hollywood superspy skills: hand-to-hand combat, defensive driving, high-tech gadgets—everything except firearms, to which he seems to have an aversion. Rade Serbedzija is on hand as Ivan Tretiak, a now-familiar type of villain—the former Soviet apparatchik now flush with oil and gas money in the new Russia (see The Bourne Supremacy for a more recent example). Tretiak is impressed with Simon's thieving skills and hires him to steal the secrets of cold fusion for his own nefarious ends.

Cold fusion is finally being perfected by the lovely but socially-awkward physicist Emma Russell, played by Elizabeth Shue. Soon Simon is seducing Emma to get the formula, and—prepare to be shocked!—finds himself falling for her. We’re treated to the inevitable long shots of Red Square as the two evade Tretiak’s minions in Moscow. Along the way, our heroes are helped by a sympathetic prostitute (“We ran into some trouble with your mafia,” Emma explains matter-of-factly) and some shady sewer-dwelling art dealers.

Beyond an elementary explanation, The Saint doesn’t attempt to deal with the science behind cold fusion. This is certainly for the best, because it’s an unproven phenomenon with a history of scientific incompetence, but the idea of limitless energy works pretty nicely as a plot device, because the audience can understand why someone like Tretiak would want such a valuable technology (Emma, however, exhibits a childlike naiveté, bewildered that anybody would want to steal her work…how she got funding regardless is a bit of a mystery).

A number of researchers are working on standard nuclear fusion (the ultra-hot variety), but as a number of recent news stories point out, the idea of cold fusion isn’t dead either. Michael McKubre, an electrochemist for nonprofit research organization SRI International, told 60 Minutes about the potential benefits of cold fusion: “For example, a laptop would come pre-charged with all of the energy that you would ever intend to use. You're now decoupled from your charger and the wall socket…The potential is for an energy source that would run your car for three, four years, for example.”

It is difficult to say whether these are the words of a dreamer or the hazy outlines of the future. Cold fusion, if possible—and I can’t find any scientific consensus claiming that it is—would probably be the breakthrough energy source of human history. But until such an energy revolution becomes reality (maybe from helium-3?), we’ll have to be content with the occasional popcorn flick about limitless clean power.