In Hollywood, dinosaurs and mutants mean big box-office revenue, but there’s also a message to be found beneath the spectacular special effects: man is simply not meant to play God (or mess with Mother Nature, depending on your existential view). Usually, this spells disaster. You think we would have learned by now, with a T. rex snacking on humans in Jurassic Park and mere mortals messing with evolution in X-Men. But in case you need more reminders, here are some films that show the problems that ensue when man takes on the role of the Almighty.
Frankenstein is one of the all-time classics of both science fiction and horror and is the quintessential film example of man playing God. In it, Henry Frankenstein is bent on creating human life, even if it means stitching together parts from dead bodies. From the moment the good doctor utters his famous cry of success — “It’s alive!” — he slowly comes to learn that this particular experiment might not be so successful after all. At least not if the torch-wielding villagers have anything to say about it when they hunt down the monster (Boris Karloff).
In the world of Gattaca, accuracy in genetic engineering has advanced to the point where designer children possess only the best hereditary traits of their parents, a cultural trend that has led to a new social structure based on genetic superiority. The story is about Vincent (Ethan Hawke), who was born without the benefits of genetic interference, and his desire to go into space — something that his true genetic profile simply will not allow. Vincent buys the genetic identity of a “valid” (Jude Law) to achieve his dream, but his masquerade is put in jeopardy when a murder is committed and the authorities find his real DNA at the scene.
Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure brought a whole new level of realism to film. It set a new standard for special effects. But when you’re watching out for a T. rex and velociraptors (note to self: great band name!), it’s easy to overlook the message embedded within the story. Billionaire philanthropist John Hammond clones the DNA from insects preserved in prehistoric amber to create his amazing theme park. Much to the enjoyment of nail-biting moviegoers, disaster strikes. Tragic, to be sure, but the underlying message is there: we should let sleeping dinosaurs lie.
In the dystopian future of The Island, residents of a strictly controlled society live in an isolated compound to protect themselves from the environmental dangers of the outside world. Life is pretty boring and predictable, with the residents hoping to win the lottery, with its payout of an expenses-paid trip to the island, the only uncontaminated part of the world. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is not happy with this pastoral and banal existence, and when he begins to question the nature of his reality he stumbles upon a secret about the overseers that proves they are playing in the realm of God.
The Island of Doctor Moreau
Originally filmed as Island of Lost Souls in 1932, this 1996 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic novel is the version for our generation. Here the mysterious Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando) attempts to make animals more humanlike by suppressing their animal instincts with human DNA. Unfortunately, the experiment is less than successful, and the animal men regress to their brutish ways thus proving that nature has a way of winning out.
X-Men is known for being a superhero flick, but its premise falls squarely within the “man playing God” theme. Here humanity is segregated into normal humans and mutants (humans born with special abilities). The world lives largely in fear of the rising population of mutants. Maybe with cause: mutant Eric Lensherr (also known as Magneto, played Ian McKellen) has had enough of being on the receiving end of nonmutant prejudices and believes the only way to enforce equality is by helping evolution along and turning everyone into a mutant. Not so good for the existence of mere mortals.
Don’t miss dinosaurs wreaking havoc on mankind during AMC’s Can’t Get Enough Jurassic Park, now through Wed., Nov. 16.