It was a “wet ungenial summer” in Geneva when the 18-year-old daughter of a political philosopher and a feminist author suggested to her lover and other acquaintances (including Lord Byron) that they write ghost stories. As a result, this young woman would unleash on the world a tale which terrified and captivated in equal measure.
I’m talking, of course, about Frankenstein. There was no way that Mary Shelley could know the cultural legacy her creation would have on the entire world. Cinematically, it has inspired countless films, loose adaptations riffing on the Frankenstein theme (even pop artist Andy Warhol had a go with Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, starring Udo Kier). And although the creature created by Victor Frankenstein started life without a proper name, after Universal Pictures rolled out their iconic film in 1931 he would become identified as “Frankenstein” in the public consciousness (there are debates as to whether he can/should be identified as “Frankenstein”- the ball’s in your court on this one). Moreover, Boris Karloff’s iconic creature became typified as the creature: heavy eyelids, heavily sutured, flat head, bolts through the neck. So iconic is the creature of Victor Frankenstein that in 1997 “Frankenstein Friday” was created. Traditionally falling on the last Friday of October, “Frankenstein Friday” celebrates all things Frankenstein and is a great run-up to Halloween.
But what about the conceptual legacy of Mary Shelley’s work and the idea of man creating life in a laboratory? Over the years, Hollywood has brought us some surprising riffs on the concept of man-made creation in various forms. Here are just some of the films which tip the hat to the concept of man as creator of biological (and/or artificial) life:
Weird Science (1985) – – – With more a locker room shove than a subtle wink to Frankenstein, Weird Science sees two unpopular teens creating their ‘perfect woman’, thanks to early 80’s computing power (and a bizarre table set-up which involves The Game of Life, candles…and bras on their heads). As with all John Hughes teen films, hijinks ensue, complete with catchy Oingo Boingo theme song. It’s not a film that stands up well compared to the rest of John Hughes’ back catalogue, but shows how the concept of man creating (wo)man can translate into more contemporary scenarios.
Ex Machina (2014) – – – As technology has progressed, the concept of man as creator has progressed as well. Oscar Isaac’s “Nathan”, like Weird Science’s Wyatt and Gary, chose to create a virtual woman, albeit more sophisticated and advanced in design.
Ex Machina is rich in allegory, from the biblical through to recitation of parts of the Bhagavad Gita; just as Frankenstein’s creature in the novel reads Paradise Lost, the epic poem about the Biblical Fall of Man. And just like with Frankenstein, it will be the creation that has the upper hand- Ava has benefitted from Nathan’s need for brilliance and genius, because he has imbued her with the very knowledge she needs to succeed upon her escape. Caleb, too, falls into the trap, with Ava using his role as the human in the Turing Test to her advantage. Thus, she has cleverly outwitted the one who created her, and used the human component of the Turing Test as a guinea pig.
It is Nathan’s desire to play God that ultimately leads to his destruction. As he says to Caleb: “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods”. Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life and playing God also led to his destruction, as well as the ultimate destruction of his creature. Nathan will also muse: “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”
Alien: Covenant (2017) – – – I could wax lyrical about the role of the Engineers in man’s creation, according to Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but then that would take us off on another (albeit equally interesting) tangent. For me, the cinematic concept of man as creator of life (and thus the legacy of Frankenstein) takes a very interesting turn in Alien: Covenant. David, originally created by Peter Weyland, is one-of-a-kind, compared to his mass-produced counterpart, Walter. And as an original, stranded on LV-223 when the crew of the Covenant discover him, he has become a creator himself. He has been maniacally experimenting with the alien beings on LV-223, as well as being able to outwit the remaining Covenant crew by pretending to be Walter and coming aboard the ship…taking alien embryos for storage with him. Weyland created David. David experiments with alien life, meaning to destroy the species who were responsible for his very creation.
Although these are just a fraction of the films which riff on man as creator (see also films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner, etc), it’s a theme which has continued to intrigue audiences and filmmakers alike. Man as creator is a theme which has resonated since before Mary Shelley penned her pivotal novel, but the question now is: given this theme and the consequences shown in these films…what next for society outside of the cinema?