Frankenstein 2.0: Hollywood’s obsession with ‘playing God’



Ridley Scott’s son Luke steps out of his father’s shadow this week with his directorial debut “Morgan”, a modern take on the “mad scientist” trope that has preoccupied Hollywood for more than a century.

Ever since inventor Thomas Edison’s company made the first Frankenstein motion picture in 1910, filmmakers have been telling cautionary tales about the folly of mankind “playing God” to create life.

Setting aside more than 70 movies featuring Mary Shelley’s monster itself, numerous other films have tackled the ethics of bio-engineering, from “Metropolis” in 1927 to last year’s “Jurassic World”.

“I think the appeal of ‘Man playing God’-themed films endures largely because of human nature,” Shawn Robbins, a senior analyst at movie data website, told AFP.

“Cinema, and fiction at large, are escapist art forms, but characters believing they can achieve the impossible through the ultimate power of creation can inspire thought-provoking stories that stick with you after leaving the theater.”

Modern retellings of the Frankenstein story — known in academic circles as “synthetic biology” (SB) movies — are big business.

Researchers in Vienna looked at 48 SB movies from 1920 to 2010 for a study entitled “Frankenstein 2.0: Identifying and characterizing synthetic biology engineers in science fiction films.”

They counted a combined inflation-adjusted worldwide box office of around $14 billion for the films.

– Paranoia –

The genre arguably had its golden age in the 1990s with such films as “Species”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and “Alien Resurrection” reflecting American fears about cloning.

“Jurassic Park” broke opening weekend records from Mexico to Britain and markets across the Far East, going on to take $914 million worldwide, with Steven Spielberg reportedly pocketing more than $250 million personally.

“Since the 1990s, a number of pioneering research outcomes such as the cloning of a sheep in 1996 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 1999 have been generating an increase in public interest in bio-technologies in general,” the Vienna study said.

“Morgan” — the latest iteration of Shelley’s “modern Prometheus” myth — hits theaters on Friday with a stellar cast fronted by Kate Mara, best known as reporter Zoe Barnes in the Netflix political drama “House of Cards.”

She plays a corporate troubleshooter sent to a top-secret location to investigate a violent incident involving “Morgan”, a bioengineered being with synthetic DNA.

Director Luke Scott, whose highest profile work so far has been as a second unit director on his father’s films “The Martian” (2015) and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014), says he was intrigued by the big themes raised in Seth Owen’s script.

He knew he had his “Frankenstein’s monster” when he stumbled across 20-year-old Argentine-British actress Anya Taylor-Joy, whose performance in her debut feature “The Witch” earlier this year dazzled critics.

– ‘Familiar tale’ –

“I got a preview copy and I saw ‘The Witch’ and I was blown away by that movie anyway,” Scott told AFP. “But then there’s this kid in it called Anya Taylor-Joy and I was like ‘she’s amazing.'”

Setting out as an intriguing morality tale, “Morgan”‘s third act kicks into high-octane action as the bodies pile up and Mara and Taylor-Joy lock horns in a series of increasingly tense and violent set-pieces.

“We laughed a lot, just out of relief of getting through certain takes, which are really brutal and challenging, mentally and physically,” Mara said.

The strong support cast includes Toby Jones (“Harry Potter”, “Frost/Nixon”, “The Hunger Games”), Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”, “Single White Female”) and a delicious cameo by the prolific Paul Giamatti (“12 Years A Slave”, “Straight Outta Compton”).

Big names and an enduring theme don’t always translate into commercial success, however, and some industry insiders have been pessimistic about the film’s chances of finding an audience.

“‘Morgan’ will very under-perform at the box office,” one told AFP.

Early reviews have been mixed, with critics agreeing that what starts out as a smart, if derivative, thriller begins to lose its edge as suspense gives way to generic action.

“This is a familiar tale: man creates monster, monster runs amuck, man regrets playing God,” the online news portal The Verge concluded.

“It’s just never remotely clear what Scott and Owen found so compelling about this story that they wanted to tell it again, without meaningful variations, and in the immediate wake of better, smarter, more thrilling versions.”



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