When Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818, few people could have predicted how deeply its central theme of “man creates monster, monster runs amok” would embed itself into popular culture … especially the movies.
Whether it’s James Whale’s presentation of Frankenstein in 1931, or Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park in 1993, filmmakers have delighted in telling stories about scientists doggedly seeking that elusive “Eureka!” moment … only to be undone by their own misguided ambitions.
In fact, the only thing filmmakers love more than reflecting on human hubris is reaching that part of the movie where they actually get to unleash the monsters!
The familiar Frankenstein conceit is back on our screens this summer, as the dinosaurs of Jurassic World run riot through the lush landscapes of Isla Nublar. Thanks to the first three Jurassic films, we’re already familiar with the idea of genetically engineered velociraptors, but when it comes to man-made monsters, prehistoric super-critters are just the tip of the iceberg.
In Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, the remote ocean base of Aquatica is home to three hyper-intelligent – and super-violent – mako sharks. The product of a botched attempt to cure Alzheimer’s disease, this toothsome trio – a bubbly blend of both mechanical and digital sharks – chew their way through the majority of the film’s cast before expiring in suitably explosive fashion.
Genetic manipulation can transform the most unlikely of creatures. In Jonathan King’s comedy horror Black Sheep, a series of secret experiments transforms the ovine inhabitants of a New Zealand sheep farm into bloodthirsty carnivores … with a little assistance from the mechanical and make-up effects maestros at Weta Workshop.
All that messing around with the genetic code can bring about far more disturbing offspring than flesh-eating sheep. In Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, a pair of genetic engineers get unnaturally creative by combining animal and human DNA. The result? A bizarre and disturbingly sexy hybrid called Dren who, you guessed it, goes on the rampage and proves that the inevitable by-product of creating life – at least as far as Hollywood is concerned – is death.
As the sharks of Deep Blue Sea prove, even when the genetic meddling is intended to increase mental ability, physical violence invariably ensues. The enhanced chimpanzee Caesar, simian star of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is brighter than many human beings (not to mention tortured by a very human mix of morality and conscience). For all his smarts, however – or perhaps because of them – Caesar is not above leading a revolution against the very species that raised him above the animals.
If you’re a movie scientist, why draw the line at animal experiments? Why not advance computer technology to the point where the machines can think for themselves?
Cinema is full of thinking machines inspired by Mary Shelley’s seminal novel. HAL 9000, that murderous box of microprocessors from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a Frankenstein’s monster if ever there was one. So too are the power-crazed computers in Colossus: The Forbin Project and War Games.
More deadly still are the machines that can actually move around. Ultron, the hyper-intelligent mechanoid who seeks to destroy mankind in Avengers: Age of Ultron, even makes a Victor Frankenstein out of good old Tony Stark.
As for the machine intelligences in the Terminator and Matrix franchises, they represent the most terrifying Frankenstein story of all: the spawning not just of a monster that will destroy its maker, but of an entire race of fabricated fiends hell-bent on wiping mankind from the face planet Earth.
In the face of such a threat, maybe we should step away from planet Earth altogether and seek safety on some distant world. Yet, even in the depths of space, Frankenstein’s monster thrives … and loves to hear you scream.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (the title of which borrows more than a little DNA from that of Mary Shelley’s novel) tells of a godlike alien race whose experiments with bio-weapons go horribly wrong. And what’s the end result of the tortuous chain of genetic mutations triggered by the godlike Engineers? Only the most iconic Frankenstein’s monster of the modern age: the sleek and deadly xenomorph seen in the classic sci-fi horror Alien and its sequels.
Hmm. Considering the jaws on that thing, perhaps we’re better off on Earth after all. At least here we stand a chance of reasoning with the monsters we make. Perhaps the monsters will even reason with us.
That’s exactly what happens in Blade Runner, one of the best cinematic retellings of the Frankenstein story … and the one that most closely echoes Mary Shelley’s original intent.
Like the monster in Shelley’s novel (which in reality bears little resemblance to the hulking ogres seen in many of the film adaptations) the genetically engineered replicants of Blade Runner are not shambling beasts but articulate innocents, misfits cast adrift in a world they do not understand.
Okay, so Blade Runner‘s replicants aren’t averse to a little physical violence. But they resort to it only because they don’t understand the world into which they have been brought. In that respect, they’re just like the dinosaurs of Jurassic World.
As the monster says to his creator in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus: “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel.”
Fallen angels. That’s exactly what all these monsters are, from the sharks of Deep Blue Sea to HAL 9000, from the ape leader Caesar to Roy Batty and his replicant friends … and yes, even the Indominus Rex currently busting the sub-woofers at an IMAX screen near you.
Frankenstein’s monsters. We create them. We worship them. Yet we have the temerity to grumble when they attempt to rip out our throats.
Will we never learn?
Does the Frankenstein theme still have the power to chill your blood? What Frankenstein-inspired movies would you add to the list? Unleash your genetically modified opinions in the comments box!
“The Terminator” photograph copyright © 1985 by Orion Pictures Corporation. “Deep Blue Sea” photograph copyright © 1999 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “The Matrix Reloaded” photograph copyright © 2003 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “Black Sheep” photograph copyright © 2006 by Live Stock Films and courtesy of Weta Workshop. “Splice” photograph copyright © 2010 by Copperheart Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” photograph copyright © 2011 by Twentieth Century Fox. “Prometheus” photograph copyright © 2012 by Twentieth Century Fox.