The old cliche plus DNA


IAN Malcolm, the doom-saying mathematician and hip hierophant in the book and film versions of "Jurassic Park," hangs around like the personification of a migraine.

In Michael Crichton's novel, though dropped on his head and mauled by a Tyrannosaurus rex, he takes forever to die, rivaling Francisco Franco's lengthy demise, gasping out his apocalyptic views of science.

Luckily, on film his lectures have been edited to a Ross Perot-ish infomercial on Chaos Theory.

In one of the novel's soliloquies, Malcolm (whom novelist Crichton based on the particle physicist-cum-mystic Heinz Pagels) compares scientists' use of power to thugs wielding Saturday night specials. He is a particularly hyperbolic mouthpiece for the predictable but no less disturbing anti-science sentiment that runs through the novel and the film, DTC underscored recently when the director Steven Spielberg called science "intrusive" and "dangerous."

Thus, we have Hollywood's recycled version of the already recycled cliche: It's not nice for scientists to fool Mother Nature.

The sophisticated biotechnology recreated in the film "Jurassic Park" is out of control. On an island off Costa Rica, dinosaurs are being cloned from original DNA, and these mutants are flesh-eaters, gobbling humans like so much sushi.

The amoral geneticist Dr. Wu is a true drone, too narrowly focused on his project to see the larger implications of experimentation. He is employed by a mega-goth entrepreneur, Hammond, who can't (or won't) understand the science he bankrolls.

A group of scientists recently accused the creators of the film of a Frankenstein-like distortion. It seems an apt comparison, but these science guys will have to face up: Frankenstein was just the beginning.

Scientists have never exactly lit up the silver screen, beyond the occasional intergalactic explosion. The Mad Scientist has historically embodied public anxiety over science's role in industrialization. And the development of the Bomb. And the invention of thalidomide. Today, he has come to represent our anxiety about knowledge itself.

Once upon a time, we believed that all scientific knowledge was pure, abstract and in its occasional uses humane. But as technical ingenuity accelerates and the rest of us become more illiterate about science, we have come to believe, as the film critic Leo Braudy says, that knowledge itself is suspect.

We fear the sinister power of what we cannot fathom. Thus, we judge our "experts" less on moral grounds than on efficacy: Can they control what they know?

Today, two types of scientist are portrayed on screen. We have the sellouts, scientists who make deals with corporate, military or government interests -- anything for a buck. Remember the white-coated apparitions shrouding the tiny extra-terrestrial with plastic and jabbing him with needles in "E.T."?

And the gray computer jocks working "in the mountain" in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind?" And the spacecraft crew in "2001"?

In contrast to the sellouts, we have individualists in the tradition of inventor Thomas Edison and visionary H.G. Wells who are kooks, misfits or loners. Take Doc Brown, the wild-haired theorist with the time-traveling DeLorean in "Back to the Future" or Fred MacMurray's gentle, absent-minded professor who refuses a corporate offer for his miracle substance "Flubber" (although he is not above manipulating a basketball game with the high-bounce stuff).

Then there's Dr. Spock of the satellite-dish ears, super-rational and utterly emotionless.

There are one or two uneasy Science Heroes in film, embodied most recently by a computer-voiced,wheelchair-bound but mesmerizing Stephen Hawking in "A Brief History of Time."

Most amazing is Nick Nolte's portrayal of Augusto Odone in "Lorenzo's Oil," in which a real person turns into a scientist before our eyes. Here is a man who teaches himself biochemistry in order to cure his dying son, confronting and then rejecting the prevailing message that science dooms. The movie tells us that we are all scientists if we allow our minds to inquire and refuse to be intimidated by the unchallenged "experts."

To the creators of "Jurassic Park," technological advance is virtually no-win. As Spielberg has said, "every gain in science involves an equal and opposite reaction -- a loss."

With this attitude on the part of the purveyors of popular culture, how can we expect to attract young students to science, a field they are snubbing in droves?

We also might try a new take on the grinding cliches of scientists as test-tube nerds, corporate shills or genocidal killers. Even Jeff Goldblum's shades and leather jacket can't alter the fact that, basically, he's dinosaur fodder.

Scientists can and should be held accountable for their work, but the creators of films like "Jurassic Park" would do better to suggest something beyond stereotype, begging more inspired questions of their PG-13 audiences than whether Barney or Dino could actually mutate into Jaws. (Would they scarf absolutely anybody? Including Rush Limbaugh?)

Whether the next generation uses Big Science to our ultimate benefit or detriment may well come down to one question: Which applied science has a better chance of manipulating our images of the future, gene-splicing or big-screen special effects?

Think fast. You have exactly three minutes before the planet blows up.

Carol Muske Dukes is professor of English at the University of Southern California and author of "Saving St. Germ," a novel.

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