What with the horrifying Human Centipede hitting the cinemas and the recent release of Splice, I (as a research scientist) am starting to feel a bit persecuted. You may think I’m paranoid but more often than not, scientists end up as the bad guys in movies.
Whether we're villains with God complexes or clueless, well-intentioned beings who mess with things way beyond them, us test tube folk always get left carrying the buck. Especially when Bad Things Happen.
Researchers in medical sciences, and particularly genetics, seem to be the most likely to be given the Frankenstein (or "Harold Shipman") treatment. But is Hollywood right? Are we all horrible, heartless or just plain ignorant? If The Human Centipede is "100% medically accurate", let's open the Pandora’s Box of Hollywood’s past scientific failures and see just how accurate their "evil" scientists are.
Victor Frankenstein - Frankenstein
First off, you’ve got old Victor Frankenstein. Mary Shelley's gothic sci-fi horror has been done in film a number of times, most recently on the big screen in the form of Kenneth Brannagh, with Robert DeNiro as his monstrous creation. The eponymous medical student pieces together a whole person from dead bits. Why? Well, he was raised to be curious and was probably a little wrong in the head - his mum dying didn't help that much. How? It presumably involved body snatching and the somewhat underhand acquisition of fresh body parts. Nice.
Here comes the science bit. Using electricity to bring his monster to life is unrealistic to say the least. However, electrical currents do have vitally important roles in keeping us alive. And Victor Frankenstein’s use of electricity (or galvanisation) is reminiscent of shocking a patient with a defibrillator. And let’s face it, that happens a lot on screen. Mostly on people who have only just died. If Frankenstein really was accurate, Holby City would go on for hours.
These days people tend to feel sorry for Frankenstein's monster more than the scientist. Poor misunderstood creature.
John Hammond - Jurassic Park
On to genetics. The blame for the resurrection of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is directed squarely at the geneticists of InGen - a company headed up by money-and-ideas man John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). According to Spielberg’s movie, the white-coated ones take dinosaur blood from a mosquito trapped in amber, apparently filling in the blanks with frog DNA. And with the assurance that "nothing can possibly go wrong", they promptly have a power failure. Wackiness ensues. And by wackiness, I mean dinosaurs eat people.
It’s a good job that Dino Land is geographically isolated in the middle of the ocean. Still, you can’t screw everything up. The author of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, got a lot of mileage out of Science Going Wrong, and Jurassic Park isn’t the most extreme example. He had it in for us. And science in general. His general attitude seems to have been "don't mess with science or dinosaurs will eat you".
Bottom line: I've been bitten by a mosquito before and nothing bad happened.
Seth Brundle - The Fly
Another oblivious but mild-mannered scientist who screwed things up royally is Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s The Fly - actually a remake of the 1958 movie directed by Kurt Neumann. The clueless, dorky, but likeable engineer, played by Jeff Goldblum, is working on a method of teleportation. Much of his life reflects typical scientist stereotypes. For example, he’s a little socially awkward - as seen during his attempted wooing of journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davies). But awkward is hardly evil.
While testing out his teleportation device, drunk, Brundle accidentally splices his DNA with that of a fly. Idiot. Never use yourself as a test subject, and never do science while under the influence. It’s probably a bad idea to live in your lab as well. Real scientists don't do that. Much.
Let's be honest, Brundle's freak accident didn't really do anyone any harm.
Susan McAllister - Deep Blue Sea
Genetic engineering for the betterment of mankind is an honorable endeavour. That doesn't stop it going horribly awry in the trash-tacular Deep Blue Sea. A group of scientists set about curing Alzheimer’s on an oil rig when they find an enzyme in shark brains that can cure the disease. So Dr Susan McCallister genetically embiggens the brains of three sharks. But "as a side effect, the sharks got smarter." Much ROFL-ing.
Naturally, the well-intentioned scientist soon takes her clothes off, LL Cool J appears and blows things up, and the three super-intelligent sharks go "all BP" in an attempt to escape the moronic science. Even THEY know it’s a stupid idea. But then they are super-smart what with their big brains and all.
Sharks exist. So do brains. And black men frequently blow things up. As for the scientists? They were only trying to be nice in the first place.
Michael Hfuhruhurr - The Man with Two Brains
In The Man with Two Brains, Steve Martin takes on the role of unpronounceable Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr, a gifted brain surgeon with a horrendous God complex. He’s pioneered the screw-top method of entry for brain surgery. Unfortunately, he gets driven to do the unthinkable by manipulative cow Dolores (Kathleen Turner). He participates in murder and brain stealing when he gets involved in a wacky plan devised by the undeniably malicious Dr Necessiter (a delightfully evil David Warner). It’s a hilarious black comedy, in which Dr Hfuhruhurr isn't exactly evil. It's just that his wife is.
There’s not much science can learn from this film. Unless you take it as a given that injecting window cleaner is bad for you. I have no real qualms with this.
Dr Krippin - I Am Legend
Everyone knows you can't spell "science" without "zombies". Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later reimagined zombie-ism as a virus inadvertently set on the masses thanks to animal right’s activists setting free infected monkeys. But a more active scientist was Dr Krippin (an uncredited Emma Thompson) in I Am Legend.
She cures cancer using a mutated measles virus (good thing). But being a mutated measles virus, it inevitably turns people into zombies and spreads amongst the populace (bad thing). Luckily, Will Smith’s good scientist - virologist Robert Neville - is all set to cure the zombies. Which just goes to show that a basement, an iMac and a lot of years of dedicated scientific research just might pay off in the end. On the whole, good scientist cancels out bad scientist (good thing).
Black beats white. Man beats woman. Scientist beats, erm, scientist.
Overall, the above "evil" scientists pale in comparison to The Human Centipede’s downright sadistic Dr Heiter, who sets out to construct a conjoined creature in a manner that would have Joseph Fritzel saying "hang on a minute, isn’t that a bit sick?" It seems that the only thing to recommend that particular vomit-fest is that it is "100% Medically Accurate". But that doesn't mean scientists are evil.
Despite what Hollywood says, we’re nice people with well-adjusted morals. We also have to get our work past stuff like Ethics Boards. Plus we don’t have the money to have our own labs in the basement. Unless you're Will Smith. In which case good luck with saving the world from zombies and evil movie scientists. Ben Goldacre would be proud.