The Dropout on Hulu got us thinking about series and movies about Genetics and DNA. Whilst The Dropout is based on real events, it is also a reminder of that what was once in the wild imaginations of screenwriters is now very much part of our world. Genomics research throws up ever more enticing potential storylines and Hollywood hasn’t been slow to respond. The idea of scientists manipulating the human form has been looked at from many different directions (so much that we’ve created some subcategories) . Here we look at a few of our favourite series and movies about DNA and Genetics. Let’s jump in.
Resurrection Cloning Films
Jurassic Park (1993)
A dinosaur theme park has been built on an island off the coast of Central America. The park is designed to recreate the Jurassic period, using genetic engineering, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Cloned dinosaurs are being created using CRISPR technology (gene editing) through mixing ancient Dino DNA with that of a modern frog – what could possibly go wrong!
The park is located on Isla Nublar, an island owned by billionaire John Hammond who had hoped to attract tourists to his island resort with the promise of real, live Dinosaurs. Hammond (the late, great Richard Attenborough) hires Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to oversee operations at the park. Malcolm is sceptical about the idea of creating living dinosaurs, but he agrees to take charge of security at the park. With two other invitees, palaeontologists, Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie (Laura Dern) the scene is set for a classic monster melt-down.
What follows is a real rollercoaster ride as the inevitable happens and the park exhibits escape (and they’re feeling hungry). From Velociraptors to the inevitable T-Rex, the killer dinos are hunting Malcolm, his colleagues (Neill, Dern) and his charges – two children visiting the park. Can they (and others at the park) possibly escape?
The first and best of the Jurassic Park series introduced the idea of Dinosaur resurrection to the film world and was massively popular with audiences.
Fun Fact: Filmed in part during a major hurricane in Hawaii the incessant rain played havoc with the Animatronic dinosaurs leading to some slightly unplanned versions of certain scenes (the jeep attack for example).
Director: Steven Spielberg
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Part 4 of the legendary horror movies franchise. Not the best of the Alien series but one that delves into the manipulation of a lethal alien species (I mean, really?) to make it more manageable and more deadly. Thanks to Corporation geneticists, female heroine Ripley returns, this time in the form of a clone (after dying in Alien 3 to prevent the alien inside her from escaping). Of course, this being Hollywood the conclusive ending gets shredded as it turns out the Alien within her has been removed and used to reproduce further members of the Galaxy’s most dangerous species (see also Terminator 3 for an example of junking a perfect conclusion to bring in a needless sequel). With the unsettling prospect of using humans to forcibly act as hosts, the story moves at a pace one the Xenomorphs escape their confinement. With an interesting take on the Alien (now half-alien, half-human) the movie delivers the expected horror elements of mayhem and carnage, laced with a dash of moral dilemma and corporate bad guys.
Will Ripley succeed once again in her crusade to wipe the Aliens out? This is a movie that favours the action over the storyline but does leave you squirming slightly at the concept of the half-human Alien Queen.
Fun Fact: A follow-on story (Alien 5) was planned involving Earth itself (with director Joss Whedon) but was overtaken by the arrival of the Alien vs Predator series of films.
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
The Boys From Brazil (1978)
A sinister take on re-creating the Third Reich through genetic experiments and cloning, this movie featured the great Gregory Peck and Lawrence Olivier.
A young man, Barry Kohler, becomes aware of a secret association of former Nazis in Paraguay and led by the infamous Doctor Mengele (Peck). Contacting a famous Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) Kohler is initially given the brush-off and so resorts to recording a Nazi meeting he has become aware of. Despite Kohler being killed Lieberman is able to hear the recording of Mengele ordering a massive assassination campaign.
Lieberman investigates and he discovers a large number of Hitler clones have been placed with adoptive mothers. The fathers are to be killed once the clones reach a certain age to in an aim to reacreate Hitler’s own youth, (hence Mengele’s assassination order). Determining to kill Mengele and to expose the conspiracy, Lieberman doggedly pursues the doctor.
An entertaining film and “of its time” (believed, wrongly, by some to be based on a true story). You must partially suspend belief to be fair but worth a look nonetheless. The 70s saw a fascination with possible surviving Nazis and the Boys from Brazil ticked the public interest box, cashing in on a wave of interest in both Nazis and genetics.
Fun Fact: Lawrence Olivier worked through a painful recovery from Kidney stones while making the movie. In some scenes, you can almost see the pain on his face. A true thespian.
Director: Franklin Schaffner
Warfare Cloning Movies
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Surely the greatest science fiction movie epic of all time (for some) must have an element of futuristic cloning in it – and it does. Episode 2 in the Star Wars first trilogy sees the Galaxy approaching civil war and an assassination of a leading political figure. Jedi hero Obi-Wan investigates the murder and by following the trail, discovers the existence of a vast clone army developed by the enemy, the Republic. Obi-Wan is captured and it’s’ up to his apprentice Anakin Skywalker to rescue him.
Anakin must now rescue his master, in an exciting and thrilling climax to the movie.
With big bad Count Dooku and his red light-sabre (all Star Wars baddies have red ones), Attack of the Clones is a watchable (but not greatest) piece in the legend that is Star Wars.
Fun Fact: Check out Anakin’s head passing straight through a CGI door in the droid factory. Oops, editing error!
Director: George Lucas
Blade Runner (1982)
Starring Harrison Ford and the late Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner brought a futuristic and dystopian Los Angeles to life in a way not seen before. In the story bio-engineered replicants are produced by a global corporation to work on tough, dangerous or space-borne warfare jobs that humans would struggle with, would find high risk or choose not to do. Roy’s (Hauer) group of especially advanced synthetic beings escapes and returns to Earth. A detective Deckard (Ford) is assigned to track them down and the story then follows a series of clues as Deckard locates and ‘retires’ the replicants one by one – until a final confrontation with the leader Roy. Will Roy kill Deckard (or will he save him)?
A seminal, award-winning movie that, while it initially received a lukewarm audience response, went on to inspire many future films and video games (including the 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049 with Ryan Gosling).
Fun Fact: Actor Dustin Hoffman nearly played the part taken by Harrison Ford, but dropped out for unknown reasons before filming got underway.
Director: Ridley Scott
The Island (2005)
This Sci-Fi movie involves two people (Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta) who live with others in an isolated island location built following the contaminating spread of major diseases across the earth. Part of this incarceration involves a lottery where one lucky winner gets to leave and live on the island and all of the community hope they will win.
However, Lincoln (Ewan McGregor) begins to dream about events that aren’t part of his own life. This places him under suspicion with the island’s head. In a pivotal moment, Lincoln discovers a moth that proves to him the world isn’t contaminated and he then discovers the “Lottery” is a mechanism for removing the communities inhabitants for organ donation. The story then develops further with Lincoln and Jordan (Scarlet Johansson) realising they are clones of wealthy buyers, grown to provide spare parts in the event their owner falls ill.
The storyline develops into an escape and evasion challenge for the pair – can they survive and will they be able to free the other clones at the Island?
An enjoyable film though very much in the style of its director Michael Bay (chases and explosions matter more than plot and characters). Don’t, therefore, expect a great deal of depth but an inspirational story in many ways – there will be no doubt whose side you are on.
Fun Fact: Watch for the camera crew reflected in an opening door around 35 minutes in – one that escaped the edit.
Director: Michael Bay
In a future world, A Eugenics program (the artificial improvement of a human population) is widespread, as is genetic discrimination. With artificially designed humans (“Valids”) and those born naturally (and genetically inferior “InValids”) as two parts of society, it’s an unnerving genetic selection prospect. Into this dystopian world comes Vincent, a naturally conceived human. As an “Invalid” Vincent comes to understand he has a limited lifespan and a likelihood of several major health issues. His brother, born later, is eugenically created after Vincent’s parents realise their “mistake”. Growing up Vincent takes a low-level job with Gattaca Aerospace but nurtures dreams of becoming an Astronaut. His opportunity arrives when he has the chance to pass himself off as a Valid using biological samples from a sporting Valid called Jerome.
There then follows a seemingly successful change in circumstances for Vincent as he enjoys the opportunities available to a Valid – including selection for an upcoming deep space mission as an astronaut. It can’t last of course and, due to a murder where Vincent is tied to the event, an investigation begins. Dodging the investigation, Vincent is eventually cleared as the real perpetrator is arrested and the case closed. In a surprise twist, it’s revealed that the detective investigating (and closing) the case is none other than Vincent’s Valid brother, Anton – and he knows about Vincent’s deception. The two brothers compete at a swim (as they did in childhood) and Vincent saves Anton from drowning. Anton realises that Vincent has achieved success through his own merits.
In a final twist, Vincent boards the deep space mission but is surprised by one final event that threatens to destroy everything for him. Will this be his undoing or can he still win through?
A great film with wonderful characters and an enjoyable story – but a deeply unsettling premise about what it is to be a human being.
Fun Fact: If movies about genetics and science are your thing, then you may have noticed that GATTACA is based on a genetic code of the four nucleobases making up a DNA sequence (Guanine, Adenine, Thymine and Cytosine). A nice nod to the genetic theme of the film.
Director: Andrew Niccol
Series About Genetics And DNA
The Dropout (Hulu)
As we mentioned at the top this is a drama based on real events about the rise and fall of biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. It stars Amanda Seyfried as Holmes and is an incredibly gripping story that has got the critics purring. This should absolutely be on your watch list.
Unnatural Selection (Netflix)
An educational and inspirational documentary mini-series that is currently available on Netflix. Required watching for anyone interested in the genetic engineering use of DNA, genetics and CRISPR for influencing development in living things. Told from both the corporate scientist’s and biohacker perspectives this is a great foundation for understanding many of the themes underpinning the movies above.
Altered Carbon (Netflix)
An action adventure drama set in a future cyberpunk world reveals a dark side where the very wealthy can have a cloned replacement body (“Sleeve”) created to transfer into as their existing one ages.
A British series based around the idea of using DNA matching to find a perfect romantic partner. A straightforward idea (why don’t we already have it) but with massive implications as the storyline reveals (which is probably why we don’t have it).
Swan Song (Apple TV+)
Poses all sorts of moral and practical dilemmas as a dying man decides to replicate himself – but without telling his devastated family. Will this end in tears? Watch this interesting series to find out.
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