Out of shear appropriateness, I decided to watch some of the classic horror movies from Universal Studies in the 1930s, namely those of the most famous movie monsters, Dracula and Frankenstein. I wish to focus more on the latter, namely because it is the less supernatural and had the greatest intersection with science.
In Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel to the first, a character is introduced known as Dr. Pretorius, who becomes the quintessential mad scientist–white lab coat, fairly long white and unkempt hair, maniacal laughter, and of course little sense of morals with murderous desire. Along with beakers, henchmen, and crazy electrical equipment, the stereotype was complete. Such mad scientists would become a staple in American horror films, especially low budget films (the Ed Wood film Bride of the Monster with Bela Lugosi comes to mind). Of course, Dr. Frankenstein fits into this archetype as well, a scientist that tries to play god. Ultimately, the plans of these crazed men are defeated and the scientist destroyed, often by their own creation. They reap what they sow.
Most importantly, the Frankenstein films have the common theme that there are things that humans should not explore and should not know. This is hardly isolated to the horror genre, since it is also apparent in, say, Jurassic Park. However, when one crosses the ocean, things change.
Instead of American monsters, who are often created by men and defeated by the people or folk wisdom (i.e. Van Helsing fighting off Dracula with folk remedies), and creating an antagonism between science and society or God, let us look to the king of the monsters: Godzilla. This creature is created not by some wilful act a mad scientist but by a military that had used atomic weapons on Japanese cities and tested them in order to possibly use them on the USSR or other nations. The monster is a product of accident and foolishness. Ultimately, the creature is defeated, not by the military, but by science. Dr. Serizawa in his own elaborate laboratory, discovers a secret power in oxygen. However, he tells no one of this “oxygen destroyer” expect his fiancee because he has not yet discovered a constructive use for it. In its current form, it is an awesome power, as terrifying as the bomb itself. Reluctantly, the good doctor cannot stand what Godzilla had done to Tokyo and what it continue to do until it was stopped. Crafting his weapon, Serizawa dives down to where the monster is to be found in Tokyo Bay, uses the weapon to kill Godzilla, and then commits suicide to guarantee that no one can learn how to have this weapon.
In Japan, the scientist is not mad, but is noble, moral, and uses his powers for the good of all. While Dr. Frankenstein discovers a color beyond violet to create life in order to have a society of slaves, Dr. Serizawa discovers a power for the good of all and kills himself to avoid its possible devastation on the world. Could there not be a stronger contrast?
Now, in some later Godzilla movies, the mad scientist plays a role, such as in Godzilla vs. Biollante where a scientist creates a monster out of Godzilla cells, plant cells, and the spirit of his daughter through DNA (?) because plants have psychic powers (???). However, his intentions are not malicious and it is another scientific effort, the creation of cells that will suck the power out of Godzilla, that is a major focus. The true mad scientist stereotype isn’t really here.
The point of this contrast is this: in some contexts, the scientist is seen as treading where they do not belong into the territory of the divine; however, in other stories, the scientist is the hero and even kills a god-like creature. This contrast comes across most strongly to me between American and Japanese culture. Similarly, robots in American cinema often has a menacing role (i.e. The Terminator, The Matrix) but the opposite in Japanese film and television (i.e. Gundam, Astro Boy).
Why is this? Perhaps the American culture with a general distrust of authority poo-poos the scientist because they are elitist and think they know better than others when they lack what most consider common sense and morality. In Japan, with so much focus on the honor of being an engineer or scientist, this may be a possible reason for the positive role that scientists have in their entertainment products. It is science that saves the day. Religiosity also has a role in this, since Americans are very religious overall and many claim that morality and social cohesion comes from on high, so treading on that is blasphemous. Japan is more secular, but the relation between the old belief systems and the new ways of thinking I am not familiar enough to say anything. However, the differences are striking, and one must wonder if the effects of society on the movies is reciprocal. In other words, if the movies and TV series paint a different picture of science and scientists, will that change the ways of the society?
Perhaps that is, so maybe shows like House and The Big Bang Theory can change this. It is certainly worth considering.