And You Call Yourself a AScientist!

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CREATOR (1985)

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"One of these days we will look into our microscopes and find ourselves staring right into God’s eyes, and the first one who blinks will lose his testicles."
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creatorDirector: Ivan Passer

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Vincent Spano, Mariel Hemingway, Virginia Madsen, David Ogden Stiers, John Dehner, Lee Kessler

Screenplay: Jeremy Leven, based upon his novel

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Synopsis: On his first day of graduate school, Boris Lapkin (Vincent Spano) follows a pretty female student into the laboratory of Nobel Prize-winning biologist, Dr Harry Wolper (Peter O’Toole). When he hears that Boris’s proposed supervisor is Dr Sid Kuhlenbeck (David Ogden Stiers), Wolper tells him hurriedly that Kuhlenbeck is out of money and cannot afford another student, but that he, Wolper, is willing to take him on. Boris is hesitant, but after Kuhlenbeck storms into the lab demanding to know his student’s whereabouts, and proclaiming, amongst other things, that he "owns his ass", Boris throws in with Wolper. Wolper takes his new student to the private laboratory he has built behind his house, which is filled with equipment misappropriated from the University. There, he breaks it to the stunned Boris that he is trying to clone his wife, Lucy, who has been dead for thirty years. Wolper discusses his work with Paul (John Dehner), who is Chairman of the university’s research committee. Paul warns him that Kuhlenbeck wants him shipped off to the university’s sister research facility, Northfield, which is full of superannuated scientists. As Wolper and Boris carry out their work with Lucy’s cells, Wolper decides that they need a new sequencer; the pair steals one from Kuhlenbeck’s lab. Boris receives word that his father has died. After the funeral, Wolper takes Boris to his beach-house, where the two pour out their hearts to each other. Boris confesses to Wolper that he’s looking for a special girl, and Wolper tells him that the girl he followed into the lab on his first day is called Barbara Spencer (Virginia Madsen). Soon after, Boris encounters Barbara while she is moving into her new apartment. He helps her with her things and they hit it off, but to Boris’s dismay, he learns that she has a male "roommate". Boris’s day goes from bad to worse when he is summoned into Kuhlenbeck’s presence. Kuhlenbeck hounds Boris with questions about Wolper’s secret research, but Boris refuses to answer, despite Kuhlenbeck’s threats. Wolper tells Paul that to carry out the next stage of his research, he needs a human egg. Paul asks him sarcastically how he’s going to get one – "Advertise?" – and Wolper does just that, distributing flyers around the district. While doing so, he encounters a young girl, Meli (Mariel Hemingway), who is crying. She confides in him that her boyfriend has dumped her, that’s she’s broke, and that she thinks she’s pregnant, but can’t afford a doctor’s appointment to find out for sure. Wolper offers to help her and, after carrying out tests, tells her she isn’t pregnant. Meli shouts with joy, and in gratitude, demands to know what she can do for Wolper in exchange. Wolper tells her quietly that, in fact, there is something she could do….

Comments: Of course, dealing as it does with human cloning, Creator hardly qualifies as "science fiction" any more; although it must be said that the way it handles its "science" is pretty damn fictional, so I guess it can legitimately be included on this site. I confess that I was reluctant to watch this film, primarily because all the literature I’ve seen on it describes it as either "sweet" or "charming"; two words that are generally sufficient to send me running for the hills in shrieking horror, looking for a cave in which to barricade myself until the nightmare is over. As it turns out, Creator is indeed both sweet and charming, but that’s the least of its problems. In its depiction of science and scientists, the film is nothing less than a throwback to the SF films of the 1950s, in which research is usually conducted not from an actual institution, whether government or private, but from the protagonist’s basement – or garage – or lounge-room. In an era of charmingly preposterous movie science, when giant ants/leeches/grasshoppers/human beings rampaged across America, and "radiation" was the answer to all of life’s most pressing questions, those quaint home laboratories seemed as appropriate as they were absurd. Nevertheless, it came as something of a shock to realise that in Creator, made a good thirty years after the heyday of cinematic science, the audience is still expected to swallow such a ridiculous set-up. Even more annoying was the discovery that this is one of those irritating films where the viewer is supposed to take everything at face value, and not consider anything that happens from any other point of view than that overtly presented. In other words, everything the "good guys" do is automatically right, no matter how thoughtless/immoral/illegal their actions might, in reality, be; while everything the "bad guy" does is automatically unworthy of consideration. And this is where, for me, Creator falls apart. There is no doubt that Harry Wolper is intended as the film’s hero; that we are supposed to like him, be inspired by him, take his side. To do these things, however, it becomes necessary to turn a blind eye to what Harry actually is; and more importantly, to what he does. As head of the (nicely generic) University Medical Center, Harry is responsible for maintaining the institute’s funding, running a research laboratory, supervising a small squadron of graduate students, and teaching. Yet we never see him doing any of these things. Instead, every moment of his time is devoted to his obsession with Lucy, his dead wife; and his attempt to clone her from the cells he has miraculously kept viable during the intervening years. In pursuit of this goal, Harry has set up a private lab in his backyard shed, which is equipped with instruments, glassware, chemicals and, yes, even a student "borrowed" from the university. When Harry decides he needs a sequencer, he and Boris break into Sid Kuhlenbeck’s laboratory and steal one. In short, Harry Wolper is guilty of grand larceny; of misappropriation of funds and equipment; of defrauding both the government that pays him and the institute that employs him; of neglecting and misguiding his students; and of endangering the future employment of everyone connected with him; and all in the name of a research project that is both illegal and unethical. And yet the viewer is supposed – as does nearly everyone in the film – just blithely to overlook all of this. And why? Because Harry Wolper loved his wife. And because Harry Wolper is "charming".

Oh, yes, Harry Wolper is "charming", all right. We’ve all seen this performance from Peter O’Toole before, in which he bulldozes through a film pummelling everyone around him with his personality. (My Favourite Year comes to mind; so, more sinisterly, does High Spirits.) It’s always amusing, in a perverse kind of way, watching screenwriters trying to make a movie character be "a scientist" and "a nice person" at the same time; the two states being, as we all know, essentially mutually exclusive. In the case of Harry Wolper, they begin with his insistence that everyone call him "Harry" rather than "Dr Wolper" – to which I can only respond, big deal. (Science – or at least, biology – is pretty casually run in my neck of the woods. I can’t recall ever calling any of my lecturers/supervisors/bosses by anything but their first name, after my first day as an undergraduate. But perhaps things are kept more formal in the US than they are here?) We then move to Harry’s attitude to animal research; at which point the movie indulges in some frank hypocrisy. As we all know, "nice" scientists don’t do animal experiments (just the way that "nice" girls don’t think about sex). However, Harry Wolper is supposed to be a Nobel Laureate in Biology, and I guess it finally dawned upon Jeremy Leven that to suggest that Harry had never done any animal work was just too much of a stretch; and so he admits, yes, he did used to work with rabbits. However, in the course of this story, the only lab animals we see are the ones that Harry has (again) "appropriated" from the university; and which he keeps in his private lab for "companionship". Awww…. (Actually, I tell a lie: Harry’s unfortunate students do work with rats, which they keep (i) in individual cages and (ii) in their lab. Sigh….) On top of this, Harry has a couple of penguins for pets. Why? Who knows? (Well, actually, I do know: he’s a scientist, and therefore eccentric. Or perhaps, eccentric, and therefore a scientist.) However, having assured us that Harry isn’t one of those nasty scientists, the script then has him criticise Sid Kuhlenbeck for having "the only biology lab in the world with nothing alive in it". Eh? And finally, we have Harry’s attitude to Rules and Authority. In brief, he’s ag’in ‘em. Harry sails through this film exhibiting a sweeping disregard for every governing body to which he’s supposed to be answerable, and dismissing with contempt anyone foolish, hidebound or unimaginative enough to do otherwise. I think we’re supposed to find this attitude liberating, or inspirational; personally (being foolish, hidebound and unimaginative, I guess), I found it appallingly selfish. It never once occurs to Harry that his behaviour might have repercussions. For instance, at the beginning of the film, he is reprimanded for encouraging one of his students to "submit the Bible for his dissertation". Harry chuckles heartily at this, apparently unconcerned by the fact that he’s probably wrecked that student’s career. (Of course, if said student was stupid enough to listen to Harry, he deserves just about anything he gets. Still….) And although by the end of the film the point has become moot, I did find myself wondering how Boris would react when, after however many years’ work, his thesis was rejected, too, for consisting of research unapproved by any ethical body. But then, intent on his own ends, Harry Wolper isn’t the man to let a little thing like other people’s futures stand in his way….

The person to suffer most at the hands of Harry Wolper is Sid Kuhlenbeck, the film’s villain - and a right paper tiger, if ever there was one. I emerged from Creator feeling rather sorry for old Sid, so thoroughly is everything stacked against him here. The script hits us over the head incessantly with his role as "anti-Harry", and we are clearly supposed to accept without question that everything he does is wrong – because it’s the opposite of what Harry does, or just because Harry says it is. Thus, we see Sid being rude to his students (as opposed to just wrecking their careers), fretting over funding (no "nice" scientist does that, either), ridding himself of his lab animals in favour of a new sequencer (in case we’re in any doubt that this is "bad", Harry reacts with an indignant, "There are too many damned machines here!" – an attitude that in no way hinders his subsequent illegal acquisition of the sequencer in question), and – gasp! – refusing treatment to a sick chimpanzee brought into the medical centre. (Sid is in charge of the hospital’s emergency room, which you might indeed expect to be reserved for seriously ill humans. But Harry, of course, has no qualms about treating the animal there.) Worst of all, Sid has the temerity to object to Harry’s thieving, law-breaking ways; even – the nerve of some people! – to take exception to the fact that his new sequencer has been stolen. It’s impossible to consider Sid’s attitude as unreasonable – although we are clearly supposed to consider it so; and Jeremy Leven tries very hard to force us to do so, by making Sid bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, sleazy and mean to his students; presumably in the hope that if we don’t like Sid, we won’t feel badly about the way he’s treated. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it. Harry is wrong – and not just wrong: inconsiderate, dishonest and rapaciously self-indulgent; and no amount of cinematic deck-stacking is going to make me think otherwise.

In fact, selfishness is the key-note of Harry Wolper, and of this film; yet neither Jeremy Leven nor director Ivan Passer ever seems to quite realise the fact. If they had, Creator would be a stronger and better movie. We’re supposed to view Harry’s obsession with his dead wife, and his attempts to resurrect her, as both romantic and tragic; not for a moment are we encouraged to consider the long-term consequences - like, for instance, how Lucy might feel about being brought back. But suppose Harry had succeeded (as, until events intervene, he seems about to do)? Suppose Lucy were to be re-born? Thirty years have already passed since her death; Harry is fifty-something when the film opens. Which means that by the time the two of them could resume their "relationship", Harry would be at least seventy years older than his "wife" – leaving us to assume (or perhaps, to hope) that the relationship in question would most likely consist of her acting as his nurse; something which, naturally, she would be more than happy to devote herself to – right?

Or would she? Just who would the "new" Lucy actually be? Okay, it’s confession time: I’ve always harboured an untoward affection for that frankly silly film, The Boys From Brazil, simply because it is just about the only science fiction film out there that concedes the fact that human nature – that human beings, are shaped as much by circumstances, by their environment, as they are by their genes. The common film notion of "cloning" as simple reproduction of an individual person is ridiculous on every level; you may be able to reproduce someone’s DNA, but not their mind, or their character. This point does finally surface in Creator, but in a strangely muffled way. Towards the end of the film, tragedy strikes down Barbara Spencer, just as it did Lucy so many years before. As Barbara hovers on the brink of death, the grief-stricken Boris gives an impassioned speech about how he wouldn’t clone her if he could; that whoever resulted from such a procedure, it would not be his Barbara, who loved him and played with him, and shared his memories and dreams. And Boris is, of course, quite right. The human mind, the human heart, the human spirit – the human soul, if you prefer – is a precious and above all utterly individual thing. This is the point on which Creator turns, and Boris’s speech is the film’s critical moment; and yet – somehow, it doesn’t quite come across that way. It is Harry to whom Boris speaks, and obviously, this should have been the moment at which Harry is brought to a realisation of the futility of his obsession; that his Lucy is gone forever, no matter how many of her cells he might have in storage; but it never really happens. Harry does abandon his research, but not, we feel, because he’s accepted that he must, but chiefly because outside circumstances force him to do so (and also, by the way, because an appealing "alternative" to Lucy has conveniently taken up residence in his life). Creator is meant to be – ulp! – a "message film", there’s no doubt about that; but as it happens, when Western Union finally arrives, there’s no-one at home to sign for the telegram….

Although reality has caught up with Creator, it’s still worth examining the nuts and bolts of "science" as presented in this film. In one way, the film is utterly dated: everyone in it smokes like a chimney – inside their labs! (And speaking of "dated" - was it really such a short time ago that you could run an entire research facility on $800,000 a year!?) Despite this jarring note, for a few glorious seconds early on, I had some wild hopes that we were going to see something unusually realistic. (Here’s another True Confession: if we had, I might have dealt more kindly with the film as a whole.) The early scenes were, I think, shot on location in a real research lab; there’s an authenticity in evidence here that, after so many years of "movie labs", is almost startling. (Authentic, that is, except for everyone’s bench space being taken up by rat cages.) However, we soon move away from that environment, in favour of Harry’s private garden lab. And yet, even here, for a few beautiful, fleeting moments, there is a suggestion of care; of accuracy. Harry is growing some of Lucy’s cells, and he not only has a phase-contrast microscope, but a proper incubator, with real flasks, and growth medium!! I was sincerely excited by this (yeah, I know - pathetic, isn’t it?) – until they ruined everything by handling Lucy’s cells out in the open on a bench-top…. Oh, Lord…. (I won’t repeat myself here, but those interested in my views on the utter refusal of films to have biological material handled under sterile conditions might want to glance over my review of Severed Ties.) Faced with this, it’s no longer any mystery why Harry’s experiments have been failing for the past thirty years – although you do rather have to wonder why, while he was busy swiping everything else that wasn’t nailed down, he never bothered to acquire a laminar flow hood for himself. In any case, Harry proceeds to give Boris his idea of why his experiments are failing: "We’re very close to getting Lucy back, but her amino acids are out of sequence!" (They’re what!? In that case, it’s probably just as well that Sid’s goons dispose of Harry’s experiments; because I don’t know what he’s got in there, but it ain’t Lucy!) This pronouncement sends Harry and Boris out to burgle Sid’s lab, and the film makes its final attempt at accuracy with the arrival of the sequencer – which we never see Harry use, by the way. Nevertheless, with the help of a donor egg, he does succeed in creating an embryo that he insists is Lucy. We see this creation suspended within a glass chamber that can only be an artificial uterus; a miraculous invention that keeps this film squarely in the realm of science fiction. (This object is not only never explained by the script, its existence passes without any comment or question from Boris; rather unlikely, I would have thought.) These few concessions to modernity – and to fantasy - aside, Creator falls back upon all the old cinematic tropes. Harry may be a molecular biologist, but his private lair is decked out like a chemistry lab, as almost every lab in the history of motion pictures has been, regardless of the scientific discipline in question. And yes, just in case you were wondering – Harry lab is fully equipped with – Conical Flasks Filled With Mysterious Coloured Fluids….

I guess you'd have to call Creator an even-handed work. Its peculiar attitude to science is matched all the way by its peculiar attitude to matters more spiritual. This film, courtesy of Harry Wolper, pays a lot of lip service to God and religion. Harry professes outright a belief in God, and repeatedly insists that science must be devoted to "The Big Picture". (Sid Kuhlenbeck, surprise, surprise, is a reductionist who rolls his eyes scornfully at the very mention of God.) "At the university, I try to please the government," Harry explains to Boris, as he shows his new victim around his private laboratory. "Here, I negotiate with God." When it comes right down to it, however, it seems that Harry expects God to play by his rules, rather than the other way around. This is not, of course, an uncommon attitude to find in a movie; but Creator goes one step further when it comes to Barbara Spencer's illness. Out of the blue, Barbara suffers a "cerebral vascular accident" which, we are told, has had "a devastating effect" upon her brain. As she lies on life-support, Sid advises her parents that she cannot recover, and that they should permit him to switch off her respirator. It has been established that the Spencers are Catholic, and after some heart-rending debate, Barbara's parents accept Sid's verdict, consoling themselves with the thought that she will be with God. But naturally, that's not good enough for Harry Wolper, who somehow gets an injunction to prevent any action being taken for forty-eight hours, then leaves it up to Boris to "love" Barbara off her death-bed – which incredibly, he does. Creator boasts the most shameless and improbable resurrection scene I have ever gaped at in disbelief - and I've seen Friday The 13th VI! Given what we know of Barbara's condition, even if she came out of her coma, she should have been severely brain-damaged; but not in this universe, apparently. After forty-eight hours of Boris pleading, begging, cajoling and yelling his love for her, Barbara simply wakes up, pink and blooming and perfectly healthy. So intent is the film on pushing its "power of love" theme, and upon vindicating the life-attitudes of Harry and Boris - and, of course, upon taking one more swipe at poor Sid - that it doesn't seem to realise how thoroughly it disses everything and everyone else involved here. First of all, "heartless" doctors take a pounding. The film simply refuses to admit that Sid himself might have suffered in giving the advice that he did. "Sid does good work," concedes Harry at one point, adding, "He's also an arsehole." His tone leaves us in no doubt that the latter quality is of more importance than the former; indeed, it almost infers that Sid advised the shutting off of Barbara's life-support just to be mean. Next on the chopping-block are Barbara's parents and their religious beliefs: their decision to leave Barbara in God's hands comes across less as an act of faith than one of weakness; if they really loved their daughter, they'd have fought for her, like Boris. And this brings me to my final objection to this plot thread; one no less offensive for being, I believe, wholly unconscious. With its climactic resurrection, Creator seems to be taking a dig at anyone who ever had to face the harrowing situation that the Spencers do here. In short, it implies that if anyone had a loved one or a relative in Barbara's situation, and that person died, it must have been because they didn't love them enough. So there.

Given the way my mind works, it was inevitable that I should brush aside most of Creator’s dramatic/humorous/romantic content and zoom straight in on the science and on Harry Wolper’s professional (mis)conduct; but that’s definitely not what I’m supposed to concentrating on; not when I am [*sigh*] - A Girl. Rather, I am sure the film-makers expected that I would be sitting there having my heart touched by, and possibly sobbing over, the tragic-yet-ultimately-life-affirming romantic experiences of both Harry Wolper and Boris Lapkin. Yup, for all its scientific trappings, Creator is, in fact, a "chick flick". (A number of reviewers have described Creator as "a great date film", which is possibly the only thing that could fill me with more horror than calling it "sweet" and/or "charming". [Stop looking at me like that, will you!? It’s not just me! For your information, I have friends, now married, who on their very first date, went to see David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly. So there! Uh….why, yes – they are both scientists. Why do you ask…?]) That said, it is a chick flick of a rather unusual kind, inasmuch as it inverts the usual conventions of that repellant genre and makes its male characters demonstrate their heroism by suffering as much as humanly possible In The Name Of Love. (Which I guess makes Creator---I dunno, a "dick flick"?) Overall, Creator strikes me as a man's idea of What Women Want - which is true of most chick flicks, actually (and probably why most of them suck so bad). The Harry/Lucy relationship, which of course is present only in flashback - and the occasional hallucination - is quite delicately handled. Harry may be idealising the past, but we nevertheless get a true sense of his loss. On the other hand, the film really rubs our noses in the Boris/Barbara romance, which is rather too picture-postcard-perfect for credibility; additionally, its note-for-note duplication of the Harry/Lucy situation is way, way too pat. (This film contains one of the oddest declarations of love I've ever witnessed. While soaping each other in the shower, Boris and Barbara celebrate being "middle-class" by loudly announcing their scorn for "liberals". I was somewhat taken aback at discovering, not merely that being middle class and holding liberal beliefs are mutually exclusive, which I hadn't previously realised, but that being a liberal involves indulging in group sex and using cocaine. Jeez - all these years, I've been letting the side down....)

The film's third relationship is that which develops between Harry and Meli, his egg donor. As I watched Mariel Hemingway in Creator, I began to get the horrid feeling that she was trying to model her performance upon Judy Holliday's in Born Yesterday - playing an apparently dumb blonde from the wrong side of the tracks who's actually much smarter than all those ed-ja-kate-ed university types. Be that as it may, Meli is certainly someone's idea of a "free spirit", intended to represent "life", "freedom", "love" - in short, all the things that Harry Wolper has sacrificed in the pursuit of his obsession. This might have been fine had more attention been paid to Meli as a person; but as it stands, we're given no idea of what she sees in Harry; she just meets him, moves in with him, and decides she's going to marry him. (Perhaps the single most fatuous thing about Creator is its suggestion that what gorgeous nineteen-year-old self-declared nymphomaniacs really go for is dishevelled fifty-something scientists. And as if that's not bad enough, Meli introduces herself to Harry - and to us - by complaining that she can't stop having orgasms; and then proceeds to demonstrate her, uh, talent by having one while she's lying on a medical examination table, with her feet in the stirrups, having her eggs harvested! Um - this wouldn't have been written by a man, would it?) Meli is initially supportive of Harry's work, but in time becomes jealous and resentful of "Lucy", storming out of Harry's life with the declaration, "You're not making life here - you're making death!" And here again, Creator drops the ball. Harry's illegal activities are finally uncovered and put a stop to by The Authorities (with an unlikely lack of consequences); he does not actually choose to abandon them. When Harry finally surrenders his dream, and commits himself to Meli, there is a sense, not of him purposefully starting a new life, but merely of him giving up. That said, the scenes of Harry "freeing" what's left of Lucy do have real poignancy.

I've been pretty hard on Creator, and while I stand by that, I'm not sure that anyone reading this should allow themselves to be overly influenced by what I've said. I know a lot of people who really like this film; who find it "funny", "quirky", "touching", "romantic" - which I suppose it is. However, what it also is, is one of those films that makes me thoroughly aware of the difference between the way that I look at films, and the way that most lay people do. I became so distracted by the screenplay's notion of what constitutes "acceptable" behaviour in a scientist, that I found it tough to put that aside and try to find the film's merits. I have no doubt that a great many people will watch this film, and have a very good time, and wonder what on earth I was getting so worked up about. (I get that reaction a lot when I try to talk film; and in fact, it was the recognition of the schism between my viewpoint and that of "normal" people that was one of my main motivations for founding this site, so I guess I shouldn't apologise for it. Then again - perhaps I should....) The film certainly does have its good points - believe it or not! If you enjoy Peter O'Toole being Peter O'Toole, then you'll definitely enjoy this. Most of the other performances are pretty good, too, although by the end I found Vincent Spano's imitation of an overgrown puppy a bit too much. The dialogue is sharp, and often quite witty (and if became annoyed by many of the underlying implications of what was being said, well, that's my problem, right?). If you can take this film at face value, as a love story, and as a rumination upon life, you might well enjoy it very much. Just - don't think about it too much....

Footnote: I can't let this film go without having one more quasi-scientific rant. Now, this isn't my area of expertise, and I might well be wrong; but as far as I'm aware, if the harvesting of a woman's eggs is does vaginally, as it is here, then the procedure should be carried under local anaesthetic, and with ultrasound guidance. Otherwise, it should be done via a laparoscopy. As far as I can see, Harry Wolper hasn't stolen himself any ultrasound equipment; nor (given her highly improbable orgasmic reaction) is Meli anaesthetised. Rather, Harry harvests Meli's eggs by simply sticking a needle blindly through her vaginal wall until he hits the right spot. To which I can only respond - YEEEEE-OUCCHHHH!!!!

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