Big ideas can come in small, unassuming forms and move and impact people in a way that belies their modest appearances. Case in point: 2012’s Frankenweenie, directed by pop-goth master Tim Burton in an ironic alliance with Disney (which, nearly 30 years ago, fired a young Burton for the first incarnation of this film, a 30-minute live action short).
Frankenweenie is in every way a representative Burton movie and a very enjoyable one that, on the surface, is a simple amalgamation of a touching boy-and-his-dog story and an homage to a slew of classic monster movies.
But to pass off Frankenweenie as a charming but forgettable family flick would be a mistake. The power of fables, fairy tales and children’s stories are that they take complex issues and distill them down to their barest essence so that people of all ages can understand on either a conscious or intuitive level. This is one of the best movies in recent years to grapple with the many difficult questions surrounding science in our world today, and to quietly suggest a few modest solutions.
In just 87 delightful minutes, Frankenweenie does the following:
(1) Argues the importance of good science education
(2) Argues the need for moral and ethical education along with science
(3) Offers the missing key ingredient in science education and science in general
(4) Offer one specific solution for better science education and better science in general
1. The Importance of Science Education
New Holland, on the surface, is a placid, Norman Rockwellian suburb that could have come straight out of Burton’s own Edward Scissorhands. But, like David Lynch, Burton likes to peel back the cotton candy veneer of the suburban dream and expose the ignorance and hypocrisy festering beneath it.
Mr. Rzykruski, voiced in an enjoyably vague Eastern European accent by Martin Landau, is a new science teacher at New Holland Elementary School where our hero, Victor Frankenstein attends (yes, that’s really his name).
When, while preparing for a science fair, a boy is injured while trying to use soda bottles as a jetpack, the outraged parents of New Holland call an assembly. As vicious accusations are thrown against him, Mr. Rzykruski offers this defense:
“Ladies and gentlemen. I think the confusion here is that you are all very ignorant. Is that right word, ignorant? I mean stupid. Primitive. Unenlightened. You do not understand science, so you are afraid of it. Like a dog is afraid of thunder or balloons. To you, science is magic and witchcraft because you have such small minds. I cannot make your heads bigger, but your children’s heads, I can take them and crack them open. This is what I try to do, to get at their BRAINS!”
The parents of New Holland react to this exactly how we would expect them to.
Rzykruski’s situation summarizes a debate which has raged in American public schools for almost one hundred years and throughout world civilizations for hundreds more. Science, with Rzykruski as its spokesman, sees itself as derided and demonized by people who are so afraid of change that they will react vehemently and blindly against anyone who purports to know more than they do. Meanwhile the opponents of science, represented by the parents of New Holland, see scientists as snobbish, self-aggrandizing, condescending frauds endangering the very basis on which their perfect, Rockwellian lives are built. And worse yet, the scientists are coming for their children.
Every new technology or scientific development throughout history has been met with suspicion and at times threats of violence by those who don’t understand it. Galileo Galilei was forced by the Catholic Church to denounce his own work for daring to speculate that the sun and planets did not revolve around the Earth. Albert Einstein’s work in the field of relativity and pacifist beliefs caused his exile from Nazi Germany, the seizure of his Berlin home and the public burning of his possessions. John Scopes was found guilty of violating the Butler Act against teaching evolution in public school science classes despite never recalling if he’d actually taught that subject or not. The debate of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” continues through the American educational system even 90 years after its verdict as do debates on stem cell research, global climate change, genetic modification of foods, and so on.
Frankenweenie, perhaps wisely, doesn’t take sides with any specific scientific issue. Rather, it argues for greater awareness and scientific education among the public in general so that there can be more intelligent public discourse. Being rationally cautious about new scientific developments is one thing; habitually reacting with ignorance, fear and suspicion is another.
(2) The Need for Moral and Ethical Education
Frankenweenie argues not only in favor of good science education, but also in the ethical use of that science as evident in this important scene between Victor and Ryzkruski:
Victor: Nobody likes scientists.
Rzykruski: They like what science gives them, but not the questions, no. Not the questions that science asks.
Victor: Actually, I have a question.
Rzykruski: He he. That is why you are a scientist.
Victor: I was doing my experiment, my project, and the first time it worked great, but the next time it didn’t. I mean, it sort of worked, but then it didn’t. And I don’t know why.
Rzykruski: Then maybe you never really understood it the first time. People think science is here (points to head), but it is also here (places hand on chest). The first time, did you love your experiment?
Rzykruski: And the second time?
Victor: No. I just wanted it over.
Rzykruski: Then you changed the variables.
Victor: I was doing it for the wrong reason.
Rzykruski: Science is not good or bad, Victor. But it can be used both ways. That is why you must always be careful.
This is where the entire fear of science, be it the telescope or the flavor-saver tomato, begins. Science, as with nature, may be neutral, people rarely are. For someone like Norman Borlaug, for instance, science was a tool of peace, humanitarianism and social justice; for others that same science is a means of monopolizing crops and profiteering, thus corrupting that science and reinforcing the fear and suspicion that leads to persecution of scientists as a whole. In the film, Victor is presented as a kind of Borlaug-like figure while his less than scrupulous classmates are Monsanto, using his research for profit and self-gain.
But then how does one teach and encourage the ethical use of science? By teaching more boring, rote ethics classes? No, Frankenweenie offers a different solution.
(3) The Key Variable in Science Education
Frankenweenie also suggests the determining factor in whether science will be used in an ethical, socially beneficial way or for selfish motives.
On one level, we see how the deep, personal love that Victor feels for Sparky is the key variable that determines the success of his experiment. His classmates, on the other hand, have no such love and are primarily motivated by greed and competitiveness. Their experiments, therefore, yield destructive results.
Science has always been a kind of safe haven for emotionally aloof or misanthropic intellectuals in that it’s possible to work more with ideas than with people. But by being safely isolated in a lab, removed from the rest of the world, it becomes all too easy to lose sight of who and what the science is ultimately for.
On another level, Victor’s dog, Sparky, represents a selfless, unconditional love for humanity – love with a capital “L.” He is love. His death and resurrection in the film symbolizes a call for the restoration of this love to an industry that often feels cold, uncaring, profit-driven, monolithic – lifeless. A love of abstract ideas is not enough. If science is to truly benefit humanity, it must be motivated by love for people, even with all their flaws and imperfections.
(4) Bringing the Love Back Into Science
It’s easy enough to say that we must teach ethical thinking and that students and scientists must be motivated by love if they are to conduct science that benefits humanity. But how, exactly, do we facilitate that?
Frankenweenie subtly suggests one way, and it is hinted at in the way the characters are played off against each other. Victor is gifted in science, but the film also takes care to show us his passion for the arts, particularly filmmaking. This isolates him from his classmates who, in contrast, are only interested in sports, an inherently competitive activity.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with competitiveness per se, and when part of a balanced education, sports can also teach children teamwork, cooperation and discipline. But while sports have always been highly valued in our culture and educational system, the arts and humanities are almost always the first to receive budgetary cuts when times are tough. And yet it is the arts and humanities which teach us empathy, compassion, and how to relate to the suffering of others.
While Victor’s immersion in the arts endows him with a certain sensitivity towards others, and a tendency to pause and reflect, his classmates’ compulsive need to win and one-up each other translates poorly into the realm of science. The same science, in Victor’s hands, leads to a miracle; in his classmates’ hands, leads to horror. It’s no wonder that scientists can seem so competitive and driven. We’re training them to be that way.
Frankenweenie, as a work of art that makes its viewers think, feel and ask questions about science, is itself proof of the power of the arts to contextualize science in a way such that people will be less prone to abuse its power. The message is clear. If science is to truly save our endangered world, the arts and humanities must be a critical component of its education.
Mary Shelley, author of the original Frankenstein novel, the spiritual predecessor to this film and one of the greatest artistic meditations on the uses, limits and abuses of science, would be proud indeed.