Monday, April 25, 2005

Sivana redux

Last evening I watched 20 minutes of a made-for-TV movie called "Locusts." I wanted to see what Hollywood was doing with Mad Scientists.

In the film, a researcher named Peter Axelrod has genetically engineered locusts that are 3 times bigger, reproduce 10 times faster, and fly 300 miles per hour. A few escape from the lab and...

I didn't watch long enough to find out what happened, but I can guess. After all, I grew up with Mad Scientist movies. Two that I particularly remember are "The Thing" (1951) and "The Fly" (1958).

The plantlike Thing crash-lands its flying saucer near an American research station at the North Pole, causing all kinds of mayhem. Captain Hendry organizes an assault. Chief scientist Dr. Carrington has other ideas. He is impressed by the Thing's pure vegetable intelligence. "No emotions, no heart, our superior in every way!" the doctor enthuses, revealing the Mad Scientist at his best.

In "The Fly," gentle Andre, loving husband and father, has devised a matter transporter in his basement laboratory. An object goes in Cabinet A and reappears in Cabinet B across the room. "There need never be a famine," gushes Andre to his spouse. "Surpluses can be sent instantaneously at no cost anywhere. Humanity will never want or fear again." To test his device, he gets in Cabinet A, unaware that he shares the space with a fly...

The Mad Scientist of "Locusts" has neither the maniacal intensity of Carrington, or the bumbling well-meaningness of Andre. Rather, he seems something of a dumb prig.

The glory days of Mad Scientist movies was when science itself was generally esteemed by the public. Today, science is demonized on the right for stem cell research and global warming predictions, and on the left for genetically modified food and nuclear energy. Today, all scientists are Mad Scientists -- which may be why Axelrod seems so boringly ordinary.