Genetic themes in fiction films

27/3/06. By Michael Clark

Genetics meets Hollywood.

Although the potential applications and implications of modern genetics and biotechnology have supplied much plot-material for English-language feature films during the past 25 years or so, there is no genre or sub-genre of 'genetic movies' as such. Rather, genetic themes and motifs have been appropriated, with more or less skill and subtlety, to add a contemporary gloss or twist to such well-established popular cinematic formats as the sci-fi thriller, the chase or pursuit movie and the family drama [see note 1 ].

More surprisingly, perhaps, genetic engineering and cloning have also provided material for a number of sci-fi comedies, from Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973) to Harold Ramis' Multiplicity (1996). In contemporary sci-fi movies, genetics or genetic engineering and cloning are often to be found competing for attention with other favourite topics of popular scientific interest such as cybernetics and artificial intelligence, while at a less hi-tech level, genetic themes inevitably play an important role in movies about twins, whether identical or non-identical, such as Twins (1988) and Dead Ringers (1988).

Indeed, when analysed at the 'high-concept' level, many movies with genetic themes may be regarded as little more than novel illustrations of such familiar adages as: 'like father, like son' or 'the child is father of the man' [think, for example, of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); "blood is thicker than water" (Twins again); "breeding will out" (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, 1984); even, at least in the case of Blade Runner (1982), "the eyes are the windows of the soul"].

What attracts movie makers to modern genetics is not its scientific content, but rather its relationship to much older and more universal lay concepts of heredity, consanguinity and reproduction or replication, and its equally close connection to widespread contemporary concerns about loss of individual identity and authenticity in a society increasingly dominated by technology and big business. These essentially lay concepts and concerns are apparent in movies otherwise as different as Gattaca (1997) and The Island (2005), and also help explain the relationship of films on genetic themes to other recent sci-fi movies such as I, Robot (2004) and to comedies about parents and children or separated siblings, such as Twins and Mighty Aphrodite (1995).

Film review: Gattaca

Another recurring theme in popular movies involving genetic engineering, cloning or artificial life forms is the existential angst of the creature or clone when it becomes aware of itself as an artefact or comes face to face either with its creator or its original, as in Blade Runner and, most recently, The Island. In this respect, such films echo the plight of the monster as interpreted in some of the more sensitive film versions of Frankenstein, while also playing on the kind of primal fears and radical uncertainty about identity traditionally evoked by the figure of the doppelgänger, but also seen in sci-fi movies like Solaris (1972), (2002) [see note 2 ].

Lastly, in an age in which digital technology has come to dominate the whole process of creating and diffusing images, the relationship between genetics and replication is one that has a peculiar resonance for film makers, and it is surely no accident that many recent Hollywood movies in particular have been concerned with replication and cloning. In this sense, even though ostensibly it has very little to do with genetics as such, 'Blade Runner' may be regarded as the template for most later movies on genetic themes, and in repeating some of its best-known plot devices, such as the deliberate design faults intended to limit the lifespan of clones, more recent films such as The Sixth Day (2000) and The Island may be regarded as paying homage to Ridley Scott's darkly prophetic masterpiece.

Film review: The Sixth Day

Fact versus fiction

In common with many other films in which aspects of science, medicine and technology feature prominently, films with important genetic themes have often been criticised on grounds of scientific inaccuracy or for wilfully distorting scientific facts and practice. While not all cinematic treatments of genetics are wildly inaccurate, the cinema is clearly not the best place to seek accurate information about the fine details - or even the basic principles - of human genetics and molecular biology, or genetic engineering or cloning technologies.

Among English-language fiction films of the past 25 years or so in which genetic engineering or cloning have featured prominently, only The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Jurassic Park (1993) have made any serious attempt to inform their audiences about relevant aspects of current genetic knowledge and practice, in both cases by means of a short didactic presentation and practical demonstration accompanied by a scientific film interpolated into the action.

It is remarkable how few films with genetic themes carry any credits for medical or scientific advisors [see note 3 ], and even film makers with apparently serious messages to convey about genetics and its role in, for example, embryo selection and human cloning have seldom felt constrained by any requirement of verisimilitude in their portrayals of genetic testing or genetic engineering. Scientific details are usually glossed over or avoided, with a few jargon phrases serving to signal reference to an assumed but unspecified body of shared genetic knowledge. Attention is normally focused on the modus operandi of genetic screening, genetic engineering or human cloning, rather than on the basic science of genetics, and the technologies described and portrayed often bear little or no resemblance to any known genetic technology. Thus the methods employed by the sinister Replacement Technologies Corporation to clone both animals and humans in The Sixth Day bear almost no resemblance to any actual or proposed cloning technologies, while almost the only point at which Gattaca descends into outright improbability is when we see the newly-born Vincent Freeman's entire medical future revealed within seconds of his birth, thanks to a heel-tap blood test. Cloning is frequently represented as being analogous to photocopying, and consequently as something that can be carried out very rapidly using mature adults as templates or 'originals', as in Multiplicity and The Sixth Day, while the exact duplication of thoughts, feelings and memories as well as physical characteristics seldom poses much of a problem.

Moreover, the representation of genetics in films in which genetic engineering or biotechnology play important roles is often seriously distorted by the generic tradition and conventions of science fiction films. Thus vast clandestine laboratory or biotech plant spaces filled with row upon row of 'blank' human bodies kept floating in tanks of nutrient liquid or in suspended animation are usually much in evidence (e.g. The Sixth Day), and great play is often made of the idea that genetic copies are somehow inferior to their originals in much the same way that analogue photocopies are inferior to photographic originals. Biotechnological processes and manipulations are given fantastic but visually arresting forms, while scientific rationales usually take a back seat or are fictionalised in ways that conform more to the expectations of youthful science fiction audiences than to any current scientific actuality.

Genetics and popular cinema

Does this mean, then, that nothing valuable is to be gained from the study of fiction films in which genetics or genetic engineering play important parts? Not entirely, but in order to do so it will be necessary to set aside strict criteria of scientific accuracy and realism, and sometimes even to suspend disbelief. Such films are not Open University course videos or secondary school science programmes, but complex blends of cultural expression and mass entertainment in which small doses of often decontextualised scientific fact or theory are combined with all manner of contemporary references and obsessions, variously imagined futures, widespread social concerns and cultural anxieties, and elements of outright fantasy.

Fiction films have a remarkable capacity for visualising both 'alternative presents' and future scenarios in which science in general, and genetics in particular, play important roles, in ways that highlight some of the more personal and subjective consequences of advances in human genetics and genetic technologies, and articulate public concerns and fears about the impact of new technologies. They sometimes have an unnervingly prophetic character, but in venturing into the unknown, inevitably they have to take some short cuts and make some wildly speculative guesses about the ways in which current science and technology may develop. This tendency, when combined with commercial pressures to compete for mass audiences, may well result in gross exaggeration or distortion of some aspects of scientific knowledge and practice.

Even so, such exaggerations or distortions often reflect and acknowledge the strength of pre-existing popular (mis)conceptions or beliefs about the nature and capabilities of contemporary science and technology. Films with genetic themes represent the point where modern biomedical science meets subjective concerns and cultural anxieties about individual identity and freedom, and their implicit and explicit messages reach and influence millions of people in all walks of life who will probably never watch a BBC 'Horizon' documentary or read a popular science book on genetics. A few such films, like Gattaca, are works of considerable artistic and intellectual value, which well repay close analysis and repeat viewings. But almost all are, at the very least, cleverly contrived and slickly marketed mass entertainment products with great power to influence millions of people's attitudes towards genetics and biotechnology. For better or worse, then, feature films on genetic themes are forms of mass communication and cultural expression, which the scientific world cannot afford simply to ignore or deplore.

Michael Clark is a research associate of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London, and a freelance writer on medical and scientific film and television.


1. For further discussion of this point, see Stephen Nottingham's essay 'Genetically Modified Cinema', written for the catalogue of the exhibition 'Put on Your Blue Genes: BioTech Kunst und die Verheissungen der Biotechnologie' (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, 2005), especially the opening and concluding paragraphs.

2. For further discussion of the psychological problems assumed to arise when clones meet their makers, see especially Stephen Nottingham, 'Know Thyself: Confronting the Clone', in Nottingham, Screening DNA: Exploring the Cinema-Genetics Interface (1999), Ch. 3.

3. One notable exception is 'The Boys From Brazil' (1978), which credits Dr Derek Broomhall, a pioneer of cloning technology and later a notable scientific film maker.

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