To recap, here’s what we know about Dr. Alec Holland’s bio-restorative formula: It’s the result of experiments in merging animal cells with plant cells. Dr. Holland was hoping to develop plants that have an animal’s aggressive power for survival; he wanted tomatoes that can grow in the desert. Personally, I don’t think world hunger is the tomatoes’ fault, but Alec thought we ought to have some, just in case.
So far, we’ve seen the formula work three times:
#1) Some drops that fell on the pine floor made the floorboards sprout new branches.
#2) A little bit of formula mixed into a beaker made an orchid grow into a full tree in less than a day.
#3) A human who was soaked in the formula, set on fire and thrown into the swamp turned into an unholy mud zombie made of moss and fury and Latin names for things.
You’ll notice that all three of those were topical uses, and all of them involved the formula interacting with plant matter. But now Arcane, the presumed-dead megalomaniac cult leader, thinks that he should gulp down a big glass of it and it’ll do something exciting to him, and I honestly can not imagine where he got that idea.
I mean, Arcane is currently standing in front of what I assume is supposed to be his Board of Directors, celebrating the exciting scientific breakthrough that he just stole from somebody else. But instead of trying the formula out on a plant, where it belongs, he’s decided to have somebody swallow it and see what happens.
This is like the CEO of a promising startup saying that he’s developed a new, innovative technology that will make the company the undisputed leader in global food production and distribution — but first, I’m going to swallow it and see if I turn into a really strong monster!
It’s bananas. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t connect to anything that’s happened over the last three-quarters of the movie. It completely wastes the whole concept of a sentient plant monster vs a greedy industrialist, and it reduces the climax of the movie to a silly, pointless, low-stakes swordfight between two guys in rubber suits.
If anyone ever tells you that the problem with the way that Swamp Thing ends is the terrible Arcane monster costume, then they are incorrect. The terrible Arcane monster costume is certainly a problem, but the plot pivot about drinking the formula is the problem.
Bruno’s transformation dance experience is gross and unsettling in a way that’s not really that much fun to watch. He just sits there and shudders and suffers, while everyone else looks on with mild interest. Nobody offers to help him, or looks at Arcane in a way that indicates that they hold him responsible. These are gross people and I’m tired of looking at them.
And then Bruno goes and turns into the wrong thing, which is annoying and probably Bill Munns’ fault. Here’s what the script calls for:
WIDER SHOT REVEALS Bruno, or what once was Bruno. But now he has altered. What was his nose is now an elongated proboscis, half-root, half-tendril. His eyes have sunken into knots, his hair turned to seagrass and his mouth opened to a LOW, TERRIFIED GROAN from his mossy lungs.
Don’t panic! I’m sure it’s only
temporary. Don’t panic —
REVERSE ANGLE. Bruno is still changing. His arms are like roots. His clothes are splitting and falling away. We see his torso is covered with a ragged bark-like substance. Next moment Bruno teeters backwards and falls as helplessly as a felled redwood.
According to that description, Bruno was supposed to turn into a plant creature, which still wouldn’t make sense but it’s better than the thing that they actually did.
So in this startling moment of ludicrous transmutation, I might as well take the opportunity to talk about alchemy.
Alchemy is an ancient proto-scientific tradition practiced in medieval Europe, China and India by people who’d figured out maybe two-fifths of the scientific method, and then just started heating things up to see if they’d explode. The alchemists’ goal was to create something perfect out of imperfect materials — turning base metals into gold, concocting an elixir of immortality, creating a panacea that could cure any disease, or inventing a perpetually burning lamp. Some of them may have been kidding.
Now, you might wonder why somebody would spend their short, miserable medieval life shut indoors — making a lot of smoke, peering at things and jotting tiny, crabbed notes in their own personal cypher about the things that they weren’t achieving — just to invent gold, which already existed. But for the alchemists, it wasn’t a business venture; it was a spiritual enterprise.
You see, alchemists believed that the universe operated in layers, and changes at one scale would produce similar changes at the other scales. The movement of the stars corresponded to the activity and fate of human beings, and they could also be mapped onto the workings of the human body, and the uses of minerals from the earth. The concept is summed up in the phrase “as above, so below”, and if you could unlock the mysteries of lead and copper and sulphur and mercury, then you would have mastery over the body, the soul, the heavens and the state. I don’t know where people get these ideas, but that’s what they thought.
So discovering how to change iron into gold would mean that you’ve cracked the secret of how to turn something common into something perfect, and this purifying change on the physical plane would correspond to a purification of the soul. We could all live forever — free of disease, error or sin — and all we have to do is figure out the magic recipe.
As it turns out, the alchemists never quite cracked it, and over several centuries, their devoted attention resulted in three things — medicine, gunpowder and failure.
So that explains the dialogue that follows, if anything will.
Arcane: We followed the notebooks religiously. There can be no margin for error! Why doesn’t Bruno there have your strength?
Swamp Thing: Because… he never had it.
Arcane: No riddles, please.
Swamp Thing: You don’t understand. There’s nothing hidden… no secrets. The formula works in so simple a way. What Bruno took was what changed me. It only amplifies your essence. It simply makes you more… of what you already are.
Arcane: Bruno’s essence was stupidity… timidity. The formula simply extended, amplified this to ridiculous forms and proportions. He shrank! He shrank to what he actually was. But if the essence is, let us say… genius! Then this genius should be monumental in body as well as in spirit. Is that what you’re saying?
Well, no, probably, because none of that means anything, but if it helps you get through the scene, then sure.
The idea, according to this soggy medieval superhero movie, is that the bio-restorative formula has a spiritual dimension as well as a physical one. It responds to intention and mentality, judging the worth of a man’s soul and then embodying that essential truth in flesh and fiber.
Alec is a nice person, and he cares about people and nature, so the formula turns him into a well-meaning plant monster. Arcane is a bad person, and he only cares about power, so the magic potion will respond to that, and turn him into a destructive animal monster. You’ll notice that they’re still both monsters, so if you were to come across the two of them without knowing who’s who, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious which one of them is getting rewarded, and which one is being punished.
This apparently doesn’t purify anything — Alec says that the process just takes the base metal of what you’ve already got, and makes it even more so. So that’s another L for the alchemists, I’m afraid, but after all these centuries I suppose they’re used to it.
We return to my favorite character!
3.40: The Unconcluded Caramel Kane
— Danny Horn