Evolution in Film

mfradera's picture

Marina Fradera

Eng/ Bio 206

Dalke and Grobestein



Two Takes: Film and Human Evolution

            Science fiction film has offered relatively few examples of imagined forms of humans. This may be due to wide-spread notions of humanity as the pinnacle or end point of evolution, thus, preventing creative imagination of the next phases of the evolution of our species. Some fairly popular films, however, have explored this idea, two of which shall be discussed here. The films X-Men (2000) and The Time Machine (2002) both present interesting takes on imagined futures in which humans have evolved. While both present extremely different interpretations of the new species or sub-species which might evolve, both share many similar means of representing the different forms of human descendants.


X-Men (2000):

            X-Men is the film adaptation of the comic by the same name first, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kurby, first published in 1963. The heroes in this world have their powers due to unexplained genetic mutations. In the film, the character Dr. Jean Gray explains to the United States Senate that mutants are “the next stage in human evolution;” they are people who exhibit certain abilities which emerge at puberty, “triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.” In addition to wanting to make a new and entertaining set of super heroes, Lee wanted to incorporate contemporary social themes into his writing. Thus, many comparisons of prejudice were drawn between the mutant protagonists of the comic and the injustices against African Americans, Jews and Communists in the United States up until and during this time. The film begins with a back screen. Out of the black emerge dots of blue light that begin to swirl about, creating strands of light. These strands begin to cluster, creating think streams of light. While this is going on, the voice of one of the main protagonists, the paraplegic telepath Dr. Charles Xavier begins a short prorogue to the story.

The Voice of Charles: Mutation- it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single celled organism into the dominant species of the planet. This process is slow, normally taking thousands and thousands of years, but every few millennia, evolution leaps forward.

Just as he finishes this brief monologue, the streams of light come together and become a swirling ball of light. The camera then dives into the light, leaping forward as Charles has just described the process of mutation. We are brought careening through tunnels and passages of light. One gets the feeling of traveling through a genetic or neurological mapping, that these tunnels follow the paths of a nervous system or electrical activity of the brain.

            These lights can also be interpreted as a representation of the random and seemingly miraculous nature of evolution. Immerging from nothing, started by nothing, these lights appear and begin to do… something, without apparent reason or motivation. Once the camera makes it fairly deep into the light, it speeds in the reverse of the path it has just traveled, exiting the light through the retinal scanning security device that locks Cerebro, a computer which amplifies Dr. Xavier’s telepathic abilities in order to locate mutants. This gives the impression that the light we had just scene is locked behind the door inside of Cerebro, symbolizing the ways in which the secrets of evolution are in most ways locked away from us.

Perhaps due partially to this mystery of human existence, reference to God is made throughout the film. In fact, after the camera returns to the blue light of Cerebro, the camera comes into focus above a Polish concentration camp with a caption that reads, “Poland, 1944.” We are confronted with a scene of horrific dehumanization in which Jewish families are led between fences that function as cattle shoots, in which the young Eric Lensherr is separated from his parents, his mother and father then separated from each other. Eric later in life becomes known as Magnito, a name embodying his mutation which allows him to create electromagnetic fields, allowing him to control metal. Eric becomes the film’s villain, playing into an us/them mentality along a mutant/ human dichotomy. He attempts to launch a coordinated strike against humans before humans have the chance to strike mutants. His fear comes from being a Holocaust survivor as is made obvious, not only by the first scene of the film but also in a close up shot of his wrist revealing tattooed prisoner’s digits given to him in a concentration camp. While Charles sees hope for a future where humans and mutants can live together, Eric is a man who has lost all hope in the human race, preferring to see mutant evolution as superior to humans in his distain. As an exchange between him and Charles, his “old friend,” demonstrates.

Eric: I’ve heard these arguments before.

Charles: That was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.

Eric: Yes, into us.

            Here, Charles is referring to a level of cultural evolution that has yielded a greater degree of tolerance for difference while Eric is referring to a biological one that has produced mutants. Eric’s wording relates directly to the opening prologue given in Charles’ voice, speaking to the moment in evolutionary history in which the film is taking place. Both Charles and Eric are noting their time in history as a particularly significant moment in evolutionary history, Eric in his above line and Charles in the film’s prologue by stating that their moment in time is one of the “every few millennia” in which “evolution leaps forward.” Indeed, such moments in history are significant in the fields of biology as well as anthropology. In terms of human history, it has been approximately 30,000 years since multiple hominids have existed on the planet at the same time. Were this to happen a second time, X-Men presents a curious hypothesis of the cultural impact it would have on our lives.

The captions used in the first two scenes greatly reflect the potential cultural impact a mutant population, like the one presented in the film and comics, would have in our world today. From the scene of 1944’s Poland, we cut to a scene with a caption that reads, “The Not Too Distant Future.” The subtext of this implies that the previous caption which read, “Poland, 1944” could have also read, “The Not Too Distant Past.” This carries with it the impending threat on mutant lives that Eric senses lurking on the horizon. With the notion of “never forget” attached to genocide, it is implied that Charles’ claim that people have changed for the better is a debatable one. Both Eric’s remark of biological evolution and Charles’ remark on cultural evolution imply that something which is evolved, is better, Eric in his ideals of mutant supremacy and Charles in his belief that people are more tolerant as due to their evolution.

Further references to God in relation to the mysteries of evolution occur in Eric’s justification of his strike against humans. In his plan, Eric attempts to alter the genes of humans in such a way that humans would themselves become mutants. In cryptically describing his plan, he remarks that, “God works too slowly.” Not only is this a cultural reference to his own survival of the Holocaust, (known to have caused many formally practicing Jews to abandon their faith and identify solely as ethnically Jewish), he is also suggesting that God has played a part in the changes of evolution. The ambiguous presence of God also appears in the Senate hearings Jean presents at, in which Senator Kelley expresses his disdain for the ability of certain mutants (namely Charles) who have the ability to control thoughts and enter peoples’ minds. He states that individuals with such abilities are taking away, “Our God given free will.” By this same logic, was it not also possible that it was God who gave mutants their mutations?

The two moral paradigms represented by Charles who has faith in humanity and Eric who has lost faith are illustrated by a physical dimorphism between the mutants who support and follow them. The mutants who are on Charles’ side have few phenotypic differences from humans, able to pass as non-mutants if they wished. The mutants who follow Eric, on the other hand, appear very physically different from humans by merit of skin pigments ranging from blue to green. They also tend to have mutations related to physicality, such as strength, jumping and climbing ability, or the ability to change form. None, with the exception of Eric can pass as non-mutant, as well as Mystique, who can change her shape to look like anyone but chooses not to, as she explains in the film’s sequel, X2: X-Men United (2003), because she believes that she, “shouldn’t have to.” These visual cues work the same way they have for centuries in art, signaling that those which look most like beautiful humans are “good” and those which look the least so are “bad.” Perhaps because of these ingrained responses, one might be able to imagine a back story for the characters that followed Eric, that due to their appearances, they had been treated more cruelly in life. As Mystique tells Senator Kelley, “It’s people like you that made me afraid to go to school as a child.” Like Eric, then, they may have seen the darkest evils of humanity and have also lost faith and the ability to forgive.


The Time Machine (2002):

            This remake of the 1960 film by the same title was actually directed by Simon Wells, the great-great grandson of H. G. Wells, author of the novel upon which both films are based. In the film, the main character, Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, travels to the future to discover the rules of time travel in order to learn if he can save the woman he loved from dying. Accidentally, he launches himself 800,000 years into the future, much farther than he ever intended. At this point in time, as explained to him by a remnant VOX, a 21st century A. I. information storage and retrieval device, “What was once one race, is now two; one above and one below.” This is to say that humans have evolved into two distinct species, morlocks and eloi.

            Eloi are the first beings Alexander encounters upon arrival in the future. He is rescued by an eloi named Mara, a woman who nurses him back to heath after his time traveling ordeals. By all appearances, eloi are identical to humans. In fact, it could be said that they are the continuing strand of homo sapiens sapiens who remain on Earth, while the morlocks can be placed along a divergent evolutionary branch. Unlike eloi (and Alexander), morlocks live underground and hunt eloi for food. They are extremely sensitive to light and are divided into different genetic castes with vast physical dimorphism between them. The castes which go above ground to hunt eloi are depicted as beastly in many ways. They are physically very strong and can leap great distances as well as run on all four limbs. They also appear not to speak, instead making loud, frightening, bovine howling noises. Their heads are very large, with large cavities for their eyes, nose and mouth. Additionally, all morlocks appear to be male. This is supported by the fact that eloi women are taken to be “breeding vessels.”

            Another caste of morlock is the Über-morlock, who describes his own origins stating that at the point when caste breeding began among the morlocks, “My caste concentrated on expanding our cerebral abilities.” The Über-morlock’s mental capabilities allow him to have telepathic control over the other morlocks, preventing them from “exhausting the food supply” (i.e. the eloi) and affecting the dreams of the eloi and Alexander. He, too, possesses significant physical strength as well as certain telecinetic abilities which allow him to draw Alexander toward him by unseen force.

            Similar to the eloi, morlocks possess weapons (particularly blow guns and poison darts), metal tools, aqueducts and a sense of architecture with the use of stairs and the large metal faces they place at the entrances of their “colonies”. While the eloi build their structures our of natural materials such as wood and plant fiber, morlocks build their structures out of smelted mettles. In this way a parallel can be drawn between where each species lives and the materials they use to build; the eloi live above ground and use materials on the Earth while the morlocks live below the ground and use materials in the Earth. While the machines of the eloi appear to be more decorative (designed as memorials to the dead) and are powered by the wind, morlock machines seem to have functional purposes, though that function is never revealed in the plot of the film. Morlock machines are also powered by coal furnaces, reflecting the destructive forces of machinery as coal releases fumes that poison the Earth’s atmosphere.

            The Über-morlock is able to explain how the event of speciation occurred to humans. “After the moon fell from the sky,” he explained, “the Earth could no longer sustain the species. Some managed to stay above. The rest of us escaped underground.”Alexander was, in fact, witness to the cause of this event in his travels through time. The moon fell from the sky due to the fact that it had been thrown off its orbit by demolition for human lunar colonies. Thus, the environmental change that triggered a new evolutionary divergence was in turn caused by human activities. This lead to genetic drift by means of the founder effect; when those humans who gave rise to morlocks settled below the Earth’s surface, one population became two. Without contact between the two populations, certain genes completely left each population. While it appears that eloi are no different than humans as we know them today, this may only be a phenotypic similarity. Was Alexander Hartdegen to reproduce with an eloi, (Mara for instance), and that child was also able to reproduce, then it can be said that eloi are no different than humans. The film, however, does not speculate this far.

            Interestingly, it is only the Über-morlock who completely understands the 19th century human, Alexander. Due to his telepathic abilities, he is able to look into Alexander’s mind, into his memories, and know the history of the world as Alexander does. He appears to find an affinity between himself and Alexander on multiple levels. As he states, “You are the inescapable result of your tragedy, just as I am the inescapable result of you.” In one way, the Über-morlock sees himself and Alexander as similarly driven by forces beyond their control, Alex by fated tragedy and the morlock by evolution. In another way, he admires Alexander as an ancestor as was as an intellectual equal. This intellectual equality is suggested by the fact that he converses with Hartdegen rather than attacking or killing him off the bat. In having the hunter morlocks bring him Alexander’s pocket watch, he expresses a certain amount of curiosity in the 19th century man. He attempts to convey a point rather than claiming any sort of superiority in spite of the fact that he is evolved. One might imagine that the Über-morlock, as the only truly sentient morlock (all the others under his control) and the eloi as prey, Alexander has been the first being he has been able to talk to in a very long time. (Interestingly, the other character with this supreme sense of loneliness is VOX, who encounters Alexander a second time in the ruins of the New York City Main Branch Public Library). However, the Über-morlock views his own evolution as merely a change rather than an advancement that places him above Alexander. In fact, he chastises Alexander for believing that human life is somehow more valuable or that morlocks are somehow evil monsters as demonstrated in a piece of their dialogue.

Alexander: I don’t understand how you can sit there and speak so coldly of this. Have you not considered the human cost of what it is you’re doing?

Über-morlock : Who are you to question 800,000 years of evolution?

Alexander: This is a perversion of every natural law.

Über-morlock : And what is time travel but your pathetic attempt to control the world around you?

                In spite of his conviction and surrender to the evolutionary process, upon first encountering Alexander, the Über-morlock seems ashamed of the way in which his race survives. This may be due to the fact that he can see into Hartdegen’s mind and understands how he must see him. He also shows an empathetic view on life. During his exchange with Alexander, for instance, he stoops at one moment to examine a small bioluminescent creature swimming in the dark pool of water at his feet. He considers this creature, as if contemplating the memories he has just found in Alexander’s mind, considering the history of evolution, and marveling at how his ancestors were once like Alexander, and their ancestors were once like the glowing creature in his palm. He releases the speck of light just as he allows Alexander to return to the past.



            Certain interesting similarities are noticeable between the representations of the different forms of human descendants as shown in these two films. First, metal seems to stand as a symbol of mystery and evil. Just as Eric Lensherr has the ability to control metal, so too do morlocks have the skill of metallurgy unlike their prey, the eloi. There are also similar uses of aesthetics to signal a moral alignment between characters and their appearances. In each film the “good” side more closely resemble humans as we recognize them today, whereas the “bad” side or those cast as villains appear less like modern-day humans. The “bad guys” tend to look animal-like and have more physical power than the “good guys” who use their mental abilities to fight.

            There is also a strong emphasis on the importance of memory in both films. In fact, the Über-morlock calls memory a kind of time machine that everyone has, a machine that takes people back in time where as dreams are the ones that take us forward. In this way, memory serves as a tool that fuels emotion. This is the very emotion that has destroyed Eric’s faith in humanity and fueled his desire to attack all non-mutants.

Finally, as demonstrated by Alexander’s horrified reaction to the morlocks’ survival, the reactions of characters like Senator Kelley, and the physical dimorphism representing heroes and villains, it is suggested the people are mostly frightened of what they (the human race) might become. This fear of change may be due in part to an uncertainty of what it means to be human, or the constructed definitions of Humanity that give individuals a sense of comfort or meaning.

Though these comments are closing, evolution, of course, is not. Nor do these films represent the only cinematic representations of human evolution. Other examples can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), as well as Mission to Mars (2000). As can be seen in the title of one and dates of the other films mentioned, a true spike of interest in the topic of human evolution can be seen attached to the start of new millennia. This may be related to the “leap” in evolution Charles discusses in X-Men, however, it may also be a realization that the future of humans is now.


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