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Promise of Science: Man-Made Life

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The role that man made life plays in science fiction film is often similar to the role that robots play, as some of the same moral conclusions are drawn. Most often, man creates (or modifies) biological life and has to deal with the repercussions. Issues raised include the definition of what makes an entity human (or not), the morality of experimentation, and the consequences of changing or creating life.

The 1910 adaptation of the classic novel Frankenstein (1910, US) is one of the first films featuring man-made life. The young student Frankenstein wishes to create the most beautiful and perfect man he can, but instead creates a monster. Like the creations of many films that come after it, Frankenstein's monster escapes control of its creator and begins to think and act on its own, and runs away after seeing its reflection in the mirror. It later returns, but fades away into nothingness upon witnessing true human emotion (the bond between Frankenstein and his sweetheart).

Frankenstein's creation.

Homunculus (Die Rache Des Homunkulus) (1916, Germany) is a significant Frankenstein-inspired movie, where a monster is created in the image of man and is both intellectually and morally proper. Homonculus functions normally in human society, until he discovers that it was created and not born naturally. Since he is stronger than most humans, he has little trouble establishing himself as a ruthless dictator of mankind. He is eventually stopped by lightening. Homunculus is the longest film of this type yet, running 401 minutes in 6 parts.

Island of Lost Souls (1933, US) also emphasized the wrongness of meddling with life. Instead of one creature made in the image of man, this film features a whole island full of man-like creatures created from animals. Dr. Moreau is a renegade scientist whose life's work involves surgically changing animals into animal-like humans. He has enslaved them on his island, and in typical mad scientist style, is ruthless and hurtful to his creations. A man lands on the island, and discovers what has been happening there. Sick of being mistreated and upset about their questionable origins, the enslaved creatures rebel against their master.

Eyes are a recurring theme in this film. It is by examining the eyes that one's human status is determined. This is an artificial eye, used to create replicants.

The boundaries between human and not human are almost nonexistent in Blade Runner (1982, US). The replicants in this film are so similar to humans that the only way to tell a human from a replicant is by administering a Voight-Kampf test, which looks for telltale signs of emotional response in a person's eye. Emotional or empathetic response is what defines humanity in the world of this film, and this is provided to humans through a lifetime of experiences and memories.

Rachel, one of the latest and most human-like replicants, believes she is human until proven otherwise. She is perhaps the most emotional character in the entire film. This is because she has implanted memories (those of Tyrell's niece) that help form emotional response.

Similar to the creations of Dr. Moreau, replicants have been created as slaves and servants through a combination of genetic engineering and manufacturing. They are created with super-human traits that match their functionality; therefore, combat models are stronger and faster than humans. Most often, they are used for the dangerous task of exploring and colonizing new worlds.

Replicants have been outlawed on Earth, because humans were made nervous by the idea of being eclipsed by their own creations. A group of highly advanced Nexus 6 replicants revolted and escaped from a colony in deep space, and have returned to earth to reconcile their existence. They believe that they are just as alive as humans are, and have every right to live a full life. As the film progresses, these replicants display more and more emotions, ultimately displaying more humanity than Deckard.

At the end of the film, Roy (the lead replicant) saves Deckard's life and points out that humans are again in the business of slavery. We are left questioning whether Deckard is really human, or if he is an advanced replicant with memory implants.

A deadly virus that eradicates most of the population of the planet is the artificial life created in Twelve Monkeys (1995, US). Despite the importance of the virus to this film's story, we never learn a great deal about it. It was manufactured during the 1990s, probably by Goines' father. This is the only person we know of who is capable of creating it. When it was first released in 1996, everybody thought that it was some kind of flu -- until people started dying and no cure could counter it.

The scientists of 2035 are attempting to learn about the virus by collecting specimens of other animals who have survived the plague. Although we never see these scientists in action, what we do see of their science (the inaccurate time travel machine, questionable ethics, and antiquated equipment) suggests that they will probably not get too far in their quest to create a cure.

Life created by humans generally causes more problems than it solves. It is difficult to control artificial intelligence, and morally wrong to enslave another living creature. Each of these films warns about these dangers in a unique way, and explores the reprecussions of creating artificial life.

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. erika . .
. last modified: Jul 20, 2000 .