Change in ethics and personification of
the monster or "boogeyman" in Hollywood cinema.
Many people go to the movies. We are usually swept away by the acting, storyline, and these days, the wonderful special effects. On screen we see monsters, robots, cyborgs or any other array of "bad guys." The question is: has the role of the "bad guy" changed through the ages? The conclusion can be twofold: his role could be consistent through history with subtle changes allotted for more evolved cinema effects and technology or who he is and how he is personified at that time could be a direct reaction to the trials and misgivings of daily life at that time.
Armed with a blockbuster card and thirty dollars, I confidently strolled
into my local video store to compare old visions of the monster as well as
recent ones. I had to question whether the monster really changed; the vampire
has had fangs in every Vampire movie I have seen: no matter what year the
movie was made. Vampires seems like they will always be vampires.
My comparison and research involved the exploration of classic tales as well
as recent ones. Marry Shelleys, Frankenstein was written during
an age when electricity and medicine were yet uncharted domains. The monster
was a reflection of that time. The story was written during the time of Benjamin
Franklin. The sciences were flourishing. Life was drastically changed during
the industrial revolution. The time is 1800-1900. People were living in germ
infested, crowded and very unhealthy conditions, much like their places of
work. During the 1800s over 70,000 chemical compounds were broken down.
Some of these were cement, vulcanized rubber, synthetic dyes, and petroleum
products. Petroleum had begun to be widely used as energy.
The 1931 cinema vision of Frankensteins monster enters the stage in
a ball of lightning. The monster is created from lightning and electricity.
The consistent theme through Frankenstein is electricity, which is part of
the classic vision of the mad scientist's laboratory. We see gears, nuts,
and bolts. It is not uncommon to see sparks flying.
Electricity is still a mystery during this time. Alexander Graham Bell did
his well known electricity experiments within 150 years of the cinema version
and within 40 years of the writing of the novel. Thomas Edison also did his
light experiments within the same time frame. The film adaptation, in its
details, reflects the times. This monster comes out to look like a complete
reflection of the major industries of them time and, in return, he is a reflection
of the fears of the time.
H.G. Wells, Invisible Man was inspired by the influence of chemistry.
Alchemy has been around for hundreds of years, but chemistry is now coming
into focus. The 1933 video version shows a "bad man" who is on a
reign of terror. Many critical essays have explored the role of the invisible
man. A critical argument can be made that the invisible man, who is no longer
capable of fully interacting with humans and their society, is capable of
doing unspeakable and inhumane acts. It has to be pointed out that the Invisible
Man is a scientist. His condition is a product of science and research. What
he has become is a reflection of the time when the story was written. H.G.
Wells, a chemist, understood the fears that the people of the time. The images
in the video version are a reflection of the industry and times of 1933. The
original story can be compared with its year 2000 cinema adaptation, Hollow
Hollow Man continues with the basic premise. A man of science transforms
into an invisible version of himself. It follows his adventures and explores
how his gift or curse allows him to be capable of acts never before imagined
possible. He uses his powers to illegally and unethically spy on his ex-girlfriend.
He also turned into a killer that had to be stopped: a role consistent with
the original book.
There are some differences in these two movies. The most obvious difference
was the use of computers. The year 2000 version relies on the computer to
solve the missing piece in the invisibility puzzle. Now invisibility is made
possible not just through chemistry and biology as in the original book, but
through the use of sophisticated computer equipment. Computers took part as
the medical equipment that allowed Kevin Bacons character to "go
under." These subtle though significant changes to the story reflect
a change in society, as computers have become a big part of our year 2000
The obvious comparison to modern day movies is the change in the role of
computers. I looked to some movies made within the last 15 years as examples.
The role of the cyborg has changed even in the decade between Terminator
and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The Original Terminator portrays
a computer that has come back in time. This cyborg is half man and half machine
sent back by a future computer artificial intelligence to destroy the mother
of a future anti-computer resistance leader. In this 1984 picture the cyborg
is the "bad guy." This is during a time when computers are still
very new and most Americans still have an excruciatingly hard time dealing
with them. Computers are yet unreliable and are a mystery capable of anything.
They can erase your database or erase your homework and crash at anytime.
There is even concern during this time that they will take your job. There
is a subconscious fear: maybe they are smarter than you and can kill you too.
The representation of computers has changed in the 1991 Terminator 2:
Judgment Day. There are now two computers sent back in time in this film.
They are two different computer personalities. One is a "good guy,"
the hero of this motion picture and one is the villain. Our hero was sent
back in time to protect a teenage boy and the villain was sent back, of course,
to kill him. This mirrors the partial acceptance of computers at this time.
As the world learned to accept computers into daily life, as they have become
reliable alarm clock as apposed to the wind-up mechanical ones, as they have
become more integrated into life where most people have one on their desks;
there is one good computer and one bad one. Computers can kill you or they
can save you. Some of them are good and some of them are bad.
If we were to step forward a couple of years into 1997 we witness The
Matrix. This is a vision of a computer apocalypse. Here humans are seen
connected through the use of innovative technology and spinal probes into
one enormous computer. Millions of people are kept unconscious and communicate,
unwittingly, through this all encompassing mainframe, known as the Matrix.
Now we have completely integrated with the computer. The computer is an intelligence
with its own agenda.
This storyline again reflects the time. The computer is smarter than us and
it has taken control of us, but it shows us mercy. It has provided each human
being with an ideal lifestyle: a life they are happy to live. We have just
become batteries or pawns for their intricacies, yet they show us compassion.
In 1997 the computer has entered complete mainstream acceptance, but it still
holds its mysteries. There is talk and fear of the year 2000 bug. Again, this
cinema representation reflects the time.
The most current cinema example is Steven Spielbergs AI released in 2001. Again there is a vision of artificial intelligence; this time it is a small boy. It is a much more innocent representation of computers as compared to the terminator killing machines. AI starts off as Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the classic tale, Pinocchio. Except his twist on the old tale involves a futuristic setting. The boy is made out of silicon and polymers instead of wood. The boy is an experimental robot that is being tested for the market by a successful corporation. He has a new "love" chip installed. AI encourages the audience to feel pity for the lead character, David. We realize that he is "born" to love only one person and that is his mother. He has to be destroyed if his "adoptive" family does not want him, since his circuits allow him to only love once. After an accident with the family's blood and flesh son, David was pushed away by his Mom. She does not want him around anymore because he has proven to be a liability and she does not want to have him destroyed because he seems so lifelike.
AI establishes a sympathetic relationship with the audience and David.
Now, computers need our help. They are innocent and they rely on us to love
them and care for them. They can also love us back. In the year 2001, computers
are becoming less and less of a mystery. The youngest generation of this day
has grown up with computers. They are no longer such a misunderstood piece
of equipment and they are not so frightening. They need and crave our acceptance.
They are not the bad guy. They have become the good guy.
I want to compare these early images of monsters and computers to a more
scientific vision of the future as it is presented in Ray Kurzweils
book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. I keep relating his sense of virtual
life and virtual reality. Virtually reality will mimic life. Virtual reality
will be better than real reality because there are less limitations, not more
as computers are perceived to be more limited today.
After reading Kurzweils book it is hard to disagree with his many well
supported and educated arguments. He supports each argument so strongly with
the works of so many respected scientists and teachers that I found it difficult
to not be completely absorbed by his prediction of the future. What was disturbing
about his prediction is that his arguments are so well supported that it is
difficult to drop the reading and go on.
The Age of Spiritual Machines is reminiscent of The Wachowski Brothers,
Matrix movie. Kurzweil consistently purports a future when man and machine
are one. He exclaims that the human pattern can be downloaded to a disk. The
human pattern is theoretically what is left after one envisions that all human
atoms are in and out of the body constantly. The atoms a human is born with
are not the same as the ones he dies with. Every atom in him has swapped seats
to be replaced by the same element, but technically, not the same atom. At
the most basic level, humans are just a program for elements and their interaction.
This program can be downloadable, uploadable, changed, or even written.
We are evolving onto the age when humans will be downloadable. All of our
life experiences will be downloadable. Learning will be downloadable. A life
already lived would be downloadable. This download would be instant along
with thousands or millions right behind it. In fact, humans will come to a
point where life need not be lived, and then it would almost seem impossible
that life could be lived. This is how we end up as "batteries,"
for The Wachowski brothers vision.
The most challenging parts of my life or any life have been experiences,
namely, experiences with other humans. An experience of course is an interaction.
It could be an interaction with people or the elements. Kurzweil does not
predict elements in the future cyber world unless they are cyber elements.
We also can not have experiences with humans since they are coexisting simultaneously
with us, and we are with them in Kurzweils Global Matrix.
Our life experiences include the challenges of learning. The challenges of
looking at the same information related in different ways over years of time.
Studying French through classes, or learning English in the world through
practice is a perfect example of what it means to learn through experience;
it is the process of absorbing information presented to us in different ways.
This information was beat into us again and again. Any University class taught
us through the same process, whether we were sutfying French, English, or
chemistry. Those experiences molded us and we became a product not just of
the knowledge newly learned, but also of the experience of learning it.
The same example could be related to experiences in the office. Most office
positions value sales skills. It took years to perfect sales skills. It is
a challenging experiment of trial and error. Many finish such an experience
as accomplished salesman, but also with the bruises that only sheer trial
and error could leave.
Kurzweil does not seem to hold an opening for the experiences. His future does not predict experiences or interactions between humans. We will all just end up as another program in the global computer conscience. His prediction is very reminiscent of the Matrix.
Kurzweil has to accept the possibility that he is not correct with his predictions.
To accept him wholly is to accept that we end up as just part of the Matrix.
30 years from now industry is due to shift again, as it did before, when compared
to Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. There is the possibility
that we are no longer so concerned with the computer and the IT industry;
fears and anxieties move away from that. We could have other concerns that
are more serious and grave. Our concerns can shift to an urgent struggle for
population control, or air purification projects. There are a host of predictable
and unpredictable future dilemmas.
Kurzweil does not predict much of an energy concern, but it is a very real
predicament. The monster of the future is not a computer, but a widespread
termite that feeds on petroleum and natural gas. This termite replicates 5
times faster than any modern day roach and is immune to all human attempts
to control it. Now this breed of insect has been living among humans innocuously
for hundreds of years, but an evolutionary inner programming has clicked it
into "camel" storage mode due to the lack of available petroleum
on the planet.
Our future kids, a quarter or half of a century from now, will possibly see visions on the big screen of this energy monster. Scientists may predict the end of the world as no longer a prophecy of computers running untamed, but of a time when people have all the technology to survive except they have no energy to run any of their state of the art equipment. Fears and the big screen interpretations of them are a direct result of the industry, economy, and turmoil of the time.
Blade. Stephen Norrington. David S. Goyer. DVD. Newline Cinema. 1998.
Frankenstein. James Whale. DVD. Universal Pictures. 1931.
Hollow Man. Paul Verhoeven. DVD. Columbia Pictures. 2000.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
Matrix. The Wachowski Brothers, Joel Silver. DVD. Warner Bros. 1999.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1817. New York: Lancer Books, 1968.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day. James Cameron. DVD. Canal Distribution. 1997.
The Invisible Man. James Whale. VHS Tape. Universal Pictures. 1933.
Wells, H.G. The Invisible Man. 1897. New York: Lancer Books, 1968.