The Monster That Wouldn't Die

In with the new blockbusters, same as the old blockbusters.

That's my reaction to the latest summer-movie fare, of which I've sampled quite a number of films. I'm certainly not the first to complain about this unimaginative season of remakes, adaptations, and sequels. But as a writer who covers science, I have a slightly different gripe against boring, conservative studio executives and the general Hollywood apparatus.

As far as I'm concerned, Hollywood can remake Bewitched and Herbie movies all it wants. It can produce endless Batman and other comic-book movies, and seven Narnia flicks to accompany the seven Harry Potter films to which we're already committed.

All of this, I can tolerate. But I'm tired of preachy retreads of the Frankenstein myth, first laid out in Mary Shelley's 19th-century classic and recycled by Hollywood constantly in films from Godsend to Jurassic Park. I'm sick of gross caricatures of mad-scientist megalomaniacs out to accrue for themselves powers reserved only for God. I'm fed up with the insinuation (for it's never an argument, always an insinuation) that there's a taboo against the pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge and that certain technological achievements -- especially those with the potential to affect life itself -- are inherently "unnatural." Or as Victor Frankenstein puts it in Shelley's novel, "Learn … by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."

Granted, I agree that certain lines shouldn't be crossed. We shouldn't, for instance, clone fully grown human beings. But not because it's taboo; because it's unethical. The point is, we need to use philosophical arguments, not preaching, to determine where the lines ought to be drawn.

Moreover, I'm extremely uncomfortable with the way in which the weapon of the Frankenstein myth is repeatedly used as a club against modern-day medical researchers, who are seeking to cure people, not to become God. The "forbidden knowledge" aspect of the myth is also troubling. Last I checked, knowledge is a good thing, even if many kinds of knowledge can also be abused. Finally, the concept of the "unnatural" is a disturbingly arbitrary criterion to use in ruling out certain kinds of behavior or technologies. Let us not forget that interracial marriage and homosexuality have also been labeled "unnatural."

The broader point is that simply saying "no" doesn't qualify as wisdom, unless you're also capable of explaining why. Nevertheless, the pop "don't do that" moralizing of Hollywood shows no signs of flagging. Exhibit A: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Finally, we learn in this film what tempts Anakin Skywalker to the "dark side": He commits the grievous sin of trying to learn how to prevent his wife from dying. George Lucas is trying to be subtle about it, but he's essentially pilfering directly from Mary Shelley.

Like Victor Frankenstein, Anakin Skywalker has lost his mother in his late teens, an experience that makes him wish he could learn to conquer death to prevent further emotional losses. But alas, such knowledge is forbidden (why, we're never told). In pursuing it, Anakin Skywalker -- who, like Victor Frankenstein, has a disturbing dream prefiguring the death of his beloved -- ends up wreaking much greater harm. Instead of saving those he loves, he unleashes forces that ultimately destroy them (and him as well). The closing scene of the film, in which Darth Vader rises up from the medical table, bursts his shackles, and begins to shake the room with rage, is an obvious analogy to the creation of Victor Frankenstein's monster.

Lucas has been manipulating Frankenstein themes for some time. The previous Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, featured tall and slender alien cloners, the Kaminoans, who employ techniques such as growth acceleration and behavior modification to ensure that obedient troops can be produced quickly. In the context of the Frankenstein myth, we know immediately that this can't be a good thing. And sure enough, in Revenge of the Sith, the clones obediently turn on the ascetic Jedi and slaughter many of them.

But in fact, Lucas' uses of the Frankenstein myth are actually more unpredictable and innovative than those in another flick from this summer, The Island. Here is yet another in a long sequence of anti-cloning, anti-science diatribes. Tucked away beneath the surface of a desert is an underground megalopolis, where a greedy corporation creates clones of rich people who are then killed for their organs when the clonee is in need of a transplant. Meanwhile, the clones are kept docile through mental manipulation and two myths: that the outside world is under quarantine and that someday each will be chosen to visit the paradisiacal world of "The Island." In fact, of course, going to "The Island" really means that it's time to be butchered for your heart or liver.

Presiding over this nightmare scenario is, sure enough, a mad-scientist character who is described as having a "God complex." There are about a million flagrant ethical violations embedded in the world of The Island, but as far as I'm concerned, "playing God" is rather low on the list.

Why are there so many Frankenstein stories in the background of Hollywood movies, and why do we never seem to tire of them? The only possible answer is that the story has become a powerful myth -- one closely attached in the public mind to advances in biology and biotechnology. In his 1998 book, Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics, and Popular Culture, University College of London science and technology scholar Jon Turney even calls the Frankenstein story "the governing myth of modern biology," a narrative that's based on "science as a substitute for God" in that most mysterious and profound of acts, the creation of life.

The trouble is that the argument against "playing God" is frequently an anti-intellectual mantra used to stifle debate about new technologies, the epitome of fear-mongering. And if the Frankenstein argument is politically troubling, Frankenstein-like flicks have serious aesthetic shortcomings as well. Sure, I understand the power of myth. I can see why certain stories get recycled over and over again. But isn't there also something to be said for a little bit of originality now and again?

Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a columnist for The American Prospect Online. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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