Welcome back to another episode of What Doesn’t Make Sense in the First Twenty-Five Minutes of Swamp Thing, my personal quest to puzzle out what the hell anybody is talking about in this movie.
Just to be clear, I am fully aware that the abyss is gazing also into me. I’m becoming the confusing, nonsensical and poorly-lit creature, muttering biology words in the corner of my crowded laboratory. Someday I will be free of this lab scene, but not today. Not today.
We’ve reached the moment when Harry Ritter, the incandescently furious project field supervisor, peels the skin right off his face and reveals himself to be — ta dah! — the Amazing Arcane, Master of a Thousand Disguises, operating in Ritter’s stead for who knows how long.
“No, Dr. Holland, not Ritter,” he says. “Ritter, poor fellow, is long dead.”
That’s all we ever hear about Arcane’s cockamamie infiltration scheme, just that Ritter is long dead, and now Arcane wants all of the project’s notes pertaining to the magic green potion please, or he’ll shoot people.
So I’d like to take a look at what could possibly have motivated Arcane to do the thing that he’s doing in the specific way that he’s doing it.
First, let’s consider the phrase “long dead”, and how long Arcane has been cosplaying as Ritter. You wouldn’t say that he was “long dead” if it was just a few hours ago, or if you took his place yesterday. I’d say to describe somebody as “long dead”, it must have been at least a couple of weeks.
So Arcane has been on the spot, operating as Ritter, for at least two weeks, and from what we’ve seen, being Harry Ritter is a high-energy job. You don’t just say to yourself, All right then, I’m Harry Ritter, and take it easy for the rest of the day. If you’re Ritter, you need to charge around, scolding everyone and barking instructions. Just keeping up with your glowering schedule is a job, all by itself.
And the purpose of all this mishigas is to keep tabs on Alec’s progress and undermine the security system, so that you can stand here in the lab, with your hired goons, at the moment of the breakthrough. That’s actually a pretty reasonable plan.
Except… why do you need the unmasking and the goon squad?
You are universally accepted as Harry Ritter, project field supervisor, one of the five people allowed in this room. You are in charge of the security, probably up to and including the wall safe with the notebooks. You are the one person in the entire world who could get as much information on this project as you wanted, at any time.
Ritter could have strolled into the room and said hey guys, what’s happening?, and Alec and Linda would have told him anything he wanted to know. Alec was excited and proud, and he’s kind of a motormouth. You could ask him any question, and he would be thrilled to give you an entire lecture in response.
And while your mercenaries were out there shooting all the guards, Cable was running out of the lab to specifically invite you to come and see what happened. “Ritter!” Alec said. “He’s got to be told right away. I want to see that bastard’s face when he realizes we’ve done it!”
And yet — as soon as he takes that bastard’s face off, and reveals himself to be a different bastard — Arcane acts like he can’t access any of his Ritter memories. Later on, when he’s rifling through the pile of stolen notebooks, he realizes that the last entry was written two weeks ago, which means they’re missing the final notebook.
But when he was Ritter, he had a hundred opportunities to count how many notebooks there were, and note which is the current one. Even if he didn’t want to ask questions that might make Alec suspicious, Ritter could have gone into the lab late at night, when everybody else was asleep, and read as many notebooks as he wanted.
You’re the leader of the project, you’re in charge of security, and everyone is terrified of you. What have you been doing, all this time?
Also: they just made the dramatic breakthrough, literally four minutes ago. How did Arcane know that this was the day to invite all his friends over for potluck? The bad guys were already disabling sensors and killing people with pocket snakes when Linda discovered that the new batch of formula was explosive.
And, even more urgently: why are they interrupting the experiment right now? Alec just realized that the formula could make dead floorboards sprout with life a minute ago; he hadn’t even had the chance to stand up, when all of a sudden the mercenaries piled in. Any new ideas that flashed upon him could have been recorded in that notebook, if Arcane had waited another fifteen minutes.
But this is movie logic, red in tooth and claw. The film wants to present everything happening at once, all the events tripping over each other, so that each plot point feels fresh and immediate. And there’s a ticking clock on the audience’s patience, because we’re currently twenty-five minutes into the movie, and the monster is still five minutes away. They can’t waste any more time running up variations on the formula; we want to see a guy explode.
“What is best for you is not to be born,” Arcane explains, quoting Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. “Not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is to die soon.”
Now, I have to admit it’s been a while since I really came to grips with The Birth of Tragedy, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a how-to book. But if that’s what gets us to the end of act 1, then sure. Let’s die soon.
3.14: Mister A
Attention, brilliant commenters: I want to write a post where I talk about how terrible I think Louis Jourdan is. I know that some people think he’s great in this movie, but I can’t figure out what they actually like about his performance. Can anybody make a case for Jourdan’s Arcane? I’m not concern trolling; I honestly don’t know what the good points are.
3.14: Mister A
— Danny Horn