21 Grams  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

21 Grams is a 2003 drama directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga. It stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro. The title of the movie comes from the work of Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who in the early 1900s sought to measure the weight purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death. MacDougall weighed dying patients in an attempt to prove that the soul was material, tangible and thus measurable. These experiments are widely considered to have little, if any scientific merit, and MacDougall's results varied considerably from 21 grams, but for some people this figure has become synonymous with the measure of a soul's mass.

Like Arriaga's and González Iñárritu's previous movie, Amores perros (2000), 21 Grams is a movie which interweaves several plot lines, this time around the consequences of a tragic automobile accident. Penn plays a critically ill academic mathematician, Watts plays a grief stricken mother, and del Toro plays an ex-convict whose newly discovered Christianity is sorely tested in the aftermath of an accident.

The movie was shot in chronological order, but is edited in a non-linear arrangement where the lives of the characters are depicted before and after the accident. The three main characters each have 'past' 'present' and 'future' story threads, which are shown as non-linear fragments that punctuate elements of the overall story, all imminently coming toward each other and coalescing as the story progresses. Iñárritu may have been influenced by the silent film Intolerance (1916), though his approach is more complex.


The title refers to the cultural meme propagated by the 1907 research of physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall which purported to show scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul by recording a small loss of body weight (representing the departure of the soul) immediately following death. The research did not follow the scientific method, showed wide variance in results (21 grams is an arbitrary figure; MacDougall's actual results showed no reliable mean), and were widely dismissed by the scientific community, even at the time. No attempts to duplicate MacDougall's findings have been successful. The movie presents McDougall's findings as accepted scientific fact as a form of dramatic license.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "21 Grams" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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