Many themes and ideas continue to reoccur among different texts in time. However studying two texts in conjunction allows one to observe how composers manipulate ideas in order to more accurately connect to their context, and reflect the concerns and values of the time.
Through the comparative study of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus and Ridley Scott’s 1981 neo-noir cyberpunk film Blade Runner (Director’s Cut), one can observe how in these two didactic and prescient tales, ideas of the dangers of unrestrained scientific progress and the Promethean overreaching of man are explored, with differences in values presented reflecting the different contexts between the texts. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was created in an era of rapid technological change.
By 1818, the Industrial Revolution had deeply influenced the fundamental nature of society, while Enlightenment inspired ideals of logic and autonomy of reason were prominent in society. Her text accordingly reflects this, as seen in the protagonist Victor Frankenstein; “I am imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. ” This metaphor alludes to his passionate and desperate urge to uncover the secrets to the creation of life. Shelley however critiques his intrusive scientific pursuit and horrid creation by juxtaposing it with the beauty of nature.
This is seen in the bucolic descriptions of nature’s sublime; “Mighty alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all. ” Nature calms and dehumanises Victor throughout the text, but Victor pursues science to the extent that nature loses its consoling ability, and thereafter the Arctic becomes a pathetic fallacy to mock Victor’s psychological and mental isolation. This criticism is further emphasised through the epistolary narrative framework, which allows the text to begin in medias res.
The first introduction to Victor is him in a state of complete ruin, and so the text is a forewarning of the ramifications of amoral scientific advancement. In a similar manner, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was created in a time of rapid technological progress through the 1970s and 80s. The emergence of the computer and communication age meant that the world became more centralised, with a growing concern that technology was destroying the environment.
Set in Los Angeles in 2019, the opening establishing shot of the expansive city immediately demonstrates the negative consequences of untamed scientific advancement. The fire belching into the sky, the artificial city lights sparkling under a looming red-grey sky and the haunting synthetic pulses from the Vangelis soundtrack allude to Hades, making the city a vision of hell. The camera then zooms into the reflection of an eye, which depicts the artificiality of the world and introduces dystopian themes of paranoia and surveillance.
Hence we can see that Blade Runner is representative of a grim future that Shelley’s scientific hubris warned us of nearly two centuries ago. However there are alterations in the ideas shown to befit the differing contexts of the texts. Mary Shelley argues that an excessive pursuit of science can lead to the ruin of an individual man, seen in Victor Frankenstein. She also argues that nature is larger than man, evident in her highly Romantic descriptions of nature’s sublime.
Ridley Scott however argues that man is overpowering nature, owing to the global concerns of pollution and deforestation in the 1980s. Hence Scott implies amoral scientific advancement will lead to the detriment of society as a whole, and not just at an individual level. Unequivocally, both texts explore the idea of the promethean overreaching of man and his tendency to usurp the role of God, through the characters of Victor Frankenstein and Tyrell.
The subtitle of Mary Shelley’s novel, The Modern Prometheus, refers to Victor Frankenstein, and his creation of the monster. A new species would bless me as its creator and source” His creation however leads him to transcend the boundaries of man and elevate him into a god-like status, and this leads to Victor’s complete societal and mental isolation, where he loses sight of his responsibilities and the consequences of his actions. Victor compares himself to God, while the monster says to Victor “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel”, referring to himself as Lucifer.
This means the text is given added complexity in that there is a duality between both characters, where neither Victor or the monster are innately good or bad, rather they containing capacity for both, as they become two sides of a single entity, forming a doppelganger relationship. Finally, the literary allusion by Victor; “how could I enter into a festival with this deadly weight hanging round my neck? ” is a reference to the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and shows the eternal punishment and guilt Victor faces from outstretching the boundaries of man and playing the role of God.
Therefore it is apparent that in her text, Shelley attempts to warn of the dire consequences of man’s promethean overreaching of the role of God. Correspondingly, the idea of man overstepping of the natural order is heavily explored in Blade Runner. The film is the epitome of a dystopian world dominated by commerce. The initial low angle shot of the Tyrell Corporation’s grand ziggurat-like monolith reflects the rampant commercialisation and commodification of the world, while the blue light shining into the sky pertains to the usurpation of God’s role, and the diminishment of nature in modern society.
The Tyrell Corporation’s dominance criticises the “greed is good” attitude of the 1980s, typified through the antagonist Eldon Tyrell; “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell, ‘More Human than Human’ is our motto. ” His thick glasses symbolise his failure to see the future consequences of his actions, much like Victor, and this adds to the eye motif of the film, where eyes are windows to the soul and measures of humanity – something which Tyrell clearly lacks.
Roy Batty, the film’s role-reversed protagonist, is portrayed initially as a Satanic figure; “I’ve done questionable things”, akin to the monster being labelled “daemon” and “devil” in Frankenstein. However Scott makes a biblical allusion when Batty crucifies his own hand, and this relates him to Christ. Thus one can see how in both texts the composers warn of the dangers of usurping the role of god, showing the complexity and duality of man on Earth.
Mary Shelley’s romantic values however mean that through the character of Victor, she aims to criticise the overreaching aspect of Enlightenment, warning that those who do will be eternally punished. Ridley Scott however aims to condemn the overcommercialisation and increasing greed in society, using Tyrell as a figure to represent man’s obsession for power, and in such he criticises the society that we live in. In these ways it can be seen how the overreaching of god in both texts is used differently to resonate with different contextual values.
Therefore, through a comparative study of both Frankenstein and Blade Runner, we can see how the common issues of rampant scientific and technological progress and the usurpation of the natural order is explored in both texts, however these ideas are varied slightly in order to suit the differing contexts. Frankenstein aims at questioning Enlightenment values, while Blade Runner condemns materialism, unhinged genetic engineering and corporal greed, essentially critiquing society and presenting a dystopian vision of the future.