Thursday, March 13, 2014

Frankenweenie: A Curiously Anti-Science "Pro-Science" Message

Horror has traditionally been skeptical of science and progress. Going back at least as far as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, horror stories have often suggested that "Some things man was not meant to know." Science fiction abounds with characters who are scientists, but horror is more likely to feature mad scientists.

Frankenweenie, an animated feature inspired by the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, acknowledges horror's anti-science tradition, but then tries to turn it around into a pro-science message. Yet Frankenweenie ultimately fails, finally "defending" science with a curiously unscientific message.

In Frankenweenie, the parents in a 1950s type suburban community fear Mr. Rzykruski, a science teacher at their local high school. Much like the villagers in Frankenstein, the parents are ready to run Rzykruski out of town carrying pitchforks and burning torches. Instead, they give Rzykruski a chance to defend himself.

Rzykruski does a poor job defending himself. He insults the parents for their ignorance and fear of science. Naturally, this does not endear Rzykruski to the parents. Even so, one senses that Rzykruski's rants are intended as a pro-science message, with which the viewer is intended to sympathize.

But then the film turns curiously anti-science, not by opposing science, but by misrepresenting it.

As Rzykruski packs his car trunk with his belongings, preparing to leave town, Victor asks him for advice. Victor asks why his science experiment didn't yield the same results the second time around.

Well, according to the scientific method, an experiment with the same variables must repeat the same results before any conclusions can be reached. If the experiment does not repeat its results, then one must search for overlooked variables. The scientific method is about rational thinking, about Reason, no?

Instead, Rzykruski suggests that Victor's experiment didn't yield the same results the second time was because Victor didn't love his experiment the second time.

Rzykruski points to his head and says, "People think the perfect scientist is here."

Then Rzykruski points to his heart and says, "But the perfect scientist is also here."


What do emotions have to do with Reason and the scientific method? Sure, it's nice if scientists feel passionate about their work -- but when assessing the results of their experiments, they should be completely dispassionate. Aloof. Rational.

This superiority of Heart over Mind is an all-too-common Hollywood theme. It's the sort of cheap sentimentality one finds in many Hollywood films.

We see it again in Dark City. A dying race of aliens kidnaps a whole city's worth of humans, in an attempt to discover what makes them human, so as to assume human form and thus avert their extinction.

In the end, the aliens fail. Why? Because they were studying the human mind instead of the heart.

Like Rzykruski, John (Rufus Sewell) points to his head and tells a dying alien, "You wanted to know what made us human. But you're not gonna find it in here. You went looking in the wrong place."

Hollywood films abound with aliens who apparently travel millions of light years to study our emotions. Star Trek was full of aliens mystified or fascinated by human emotions. So too the aliens in The Forgotten and Visitors of the Night, to name a few.

Unsurprisingly, Frankenweeinie is a Disney film, the studio with the greatest reputation for cheap sentimentality.

Frankenweenie is apparently intended as a pro-science film. Yet the film praises science by damming it.


For more about interpreting themes in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

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