Talking Pictures

Weird Science

The horror, the horror: Marlon Brando spends a pensive moment wondering what he’s doing in this film.

Techno-author bites back at ‘Dr. Moreau’

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in a quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he calls up scientist and writer Edward Tenner, author of Why Things Bite Back, to discuss the new Frankenstein-esque revenge fantasy The Island of Dr. Moreau.

IT WAS EXACTLY 100 years ago that H. G. Wells published a weird little novel about a scientific genius who cooks up a race of freaky animal-people on an isolated island. The Island of Dr. Moreau has since been translated into cinematic form three times, most recently with Marlon Brando as the mad scientist and Val Kilmer as his assistant. Like such camp-classics as Planet of the Apes, it’s kind of fun, but makes no logical sense whatsoever. Even so, that eerie old theme of science turned back on itself does lend the film a modest touch of philosophical power, despite all the wacky monster-movie trappings.

“It’s a combination of a literary genre and a technological imperative,” says Edward Tenner of the whole mad-scientist plot line. “The technological imperative is to employ the latest advance in special effects, in this case to show monsters, which have been a fascinating thing for people, really since the Middle Ages. There’s also a tradition, starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of the scientist, in that case a medical school dropout who inadvertently creates a monster.”

Tenner, who holds a visiting research appointment in the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton University, is the author of a fascinating new work of scientific theory. In Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Knopf, 1996), the author develops his theory of the “revenge effect,” a phrase that has already begun to be appropriated by the popular culture, as in the recent California-wide power failures, which many newspapers described in terms of “technological revenge.” In a series of wry-humored, mind-boggling examples, Tenner shows how Murphy’s Law (the historical genesis of which he reveals in detail) has taken hold on a vast number of technology’s attempts to improve the world. I reached him at his home in New Jersey.

“I think there was one interesting element of the revenge effect in Dr. Moreau, and it had to do with the pain implants,” Tenner suggests, referring to the little microchips that Kilmer implanted in the flesh of the creatures, causing shocks of pain whenever Mo-reau pushed a button. “His only real means of controlling them was this electronic device, so anything that rendered that device inoperable would expose him to unusual risk. So yes, there was definitely a technological revenge factor there.”

A staple of the mad-scientist genre is the apocalyptic bloodbath where the doctor gets his just desserts. Dr. Moreau is no different, with its jeep-riding, Uzi-wielding beasties celebrating their turn to “be god,” as they blow up everything in sight.

“It’s an old impulse that goes back well before the tension of the master and the servant, or humanity and beast,” Tenner chuckles. “We are definitely very ambiguous about scientists, who in some ways are the victims of the effectiveness of their own propaganda. The other side of talking about your immense power to do good is that people will start to believe in your immense power to do evil, to mess things up.

“There are a certain number of elite scientists who do consider themselves godlike. They do have a certain messianic complex. The question is whether they really have any chance of having power. One of the biggest surprises of the 20th century, certainly one of the biggest since Wells’ day, is how powerless scientists have actually been as a group. I ask you,” he continues rhetorically, “which of the 20th century’s great leaders, for good or ill, has been a scientist? Other than Margaret Thatcher, who was a chemist, but not a Ph.D.

“I do have hope for the future,” he concludes, belying the film’s doomsday warnings. “It’s not that I’m confident that everything is going to be OK, but I feel reasons for hope. The real characteristic problems are not the disasters. They’re matters of the slow degradation of things. Things like gradual declines of biological diversity, the gradual warming of the earth. I think we haven’t been able to address those problems. On the other hand, if you look at all the ways that life really is better as a result of properly used technological access, I think it does a tremendous disservice to say that technology is by its nature anti-human.”

He pauses a split second, then adds, “But I understand that that often seems to be the case.”

From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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