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Movie Mutations: The Science (and Pseudoscience) of Genetics in Film

The Genome Company

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In case you haven't noticed, we really love science.

More than that, we’re all about using science to help people. At Veritas, we empower you with actionable health insights that can change your life, through Whole Genome Sequencing. It’s a mission that requires us to be precise, resolute and – well – serious. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love a good velociraptor chase sequence.

If everyone judged movies by the accuracy of the science in them, Hollywood would be in real trouble and audiences would have a lot less fun.

It comes down to this: In genomics, science matters a lot. In movies, not so much. So, if producers need to "yada-yada" some finer scientific points so we get to watch superheroes save the universe, dinosaurs run rampant in modern times, and Jeff Goldblum be all nerdy-sexy, we’re totally OK with that.

Here are some of our favorite sci-fi flicks involving genetics—heavy on the fi(ction)—that we recommend for summer viewing and popcorn consumption.


avengers end game movie poster thumbnail from wikipedia for commentary
(Marvel Studios)

Avengers: Endgame

Year: 2019
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Stars: Robert Downey, Jr.; Chris Evans; Mark Ruffalo

The Premise: Five years after the “Thanos snap” decimated half the universe, the remaining Avengers travel back in time on a mission to prevent the devastation unleashed by the infinity gauntlet. Captain America (Evans) embarks on a timeline to steal the Mind Stone. Along the way, he encounters his past self as well as Peggy Carter, who played a central role in the genetic modification that took him from scraggly, mere mortal to beefcake superhero.

What it got right: Epigenetics—the activation or suppression of specific genes—is real, and it happens all the time. Plus, scientists have indeed identified the genes that increase muscle mass, stamina, speed, and more.

What it didn’t: While scientists regularly run experiments with lab mice, there’s no “Super-Soldier serum” or “Vita Rays” that can transform a human being into a superhero.

(Check out this video in which Stanford post-doctoral fellow Sebastian Alvarado “creatively applies the concepts of epigenetics” to Captain America.)

Key Genetic Clip (from Captain America: The First Avenger)


jurassic park movie poster thumbnail from wikipedia for commentary
(Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc.)

Jurassic Park

Year: 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum

The Premise: Using DNA found in an ancient fossil, scientists are able to bring back the dinosaurs. Then they make the ill-fated decision to bill the creatures as the main attraction at an island theme park. During a preview to a select few guests, a power outage inadvertently releases some particularly nasty dinos from their cages, and all you-know-what breaks loose.

What it got right: Genetic engineering is a real thing. CRISPR is one of the technologies being used to edit genes in order to accelerate research into conditions like cancer and mental illness, and has shown promise for preventing some inherited genetic diseases.

What it didn't: Even if incomplete dinosaur DNA could be recovered from a fossilized mosquito (which it can’t), scientists wouldn’t fill in the gaps in the genetic code with frog genes. Contrary to the film’s science, dinosaur and frog DNA are not enough alike.

(NOTE: In more sci than fi, however, our co-founder George Church is leading a project to bring back the Wooly Mammoth [sort of] by combining genetic traits of the Wooly with the genome of its still-living “cousin,” the Asian elephant.)

Key Genetic Clip


star wars attack of the clones movie poster thumbnail from wikipedia for commentary
(Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Year: 2002
Director: George Lucas
Stars: Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor

The Premise: In a galaxy far, far away, the Republic is threatened by a separatist movement. The Kamino cloners breed a secret army of clone soldiers—all from the DNA of bounty hunter Jango Fett—to squash the uprising. From there, things get super complicated.

What it got right: Genetic engineering is real science. Cloning is possible. Remember Dolly the sheep? Scientists have since gone on to clone more animals, including cats, horses, and a rhesus monkey. Heck, Barbra Streisand had her dog cloned.

What it didn’t: Producing an army of clones from a single being’s genetic code and accelerating their growth rate while indoctrinating them as soldiers? Yeah, no can do. And, while the “efficiency” of cloning animals like mice has improved, human cloning has not happened yet, and would most certainly require important ethics conversations.

Key Genetic Clip


the fly movie poster thumbnail from wikipedia for commentary
(20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

The Fly

Year: 1986
Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

The Premise: Oddball genius Seth Brundle (Goldblum) has invented "telepods" that can transport matter across space and reintegrate it. At first, the groundbreaking creation works only for inanimate objects, not living beings. When a drunken impulse fueled by jealousy drives Seth to be his own guinea pig, the consequences are dire. A common housefly hitches a ride in the pod, combining its genes and Seth’s into one hybrid “Brundlefly.”

What it got right: Maybe the zeal that has been known to push scientists to endeavor ill-advised experimentation. Other than that, there’s nothing real to be found in this movie, but many consider it to be a landmark achievement in film for both its structure and special effects.

What it didn't: Much to the chagrin of routine commuters and anyone who’s been on an airplane with a fussy baby, teleportation does not exist... yet. And, fortunately, human DNA cannot be "fused" together with a fly’s. Phew! ‘Cause that was gross.

Key Genetic Clip


gattaca movie poster thumbnail from wikipedia for commentary
(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Gattaca

Year: 1997
Director: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law

The Premise: In a world where DNA dictates social class and career, the future for the non-genetically modified Vincent Freeman (Hawke) looks bleak until he assumes the identity of a superior specimen. Masquerading as Jerome Morrow, Vincent repeatedly deceives gene tests with samples from his namesake and is set to achieve his dream of space travel. But, as his mission approaches, he struggles to sustain the ruse.

What it got right: As the science of genomics continues to advance, genetic bigotry is a legitimate concern. The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) aimed to get ahead of DNA favoritism in relation to health insurance and employment, but who knows where genetic engineering will lead, and how legislation would need to evolve to avoid abuses?

What it didn't: We’re not genetically testing every infant at birth. And while our own experts say that's inevitable, the idea of assigning class and career accordingly, is a definite no-no. The technology doesn’t exist to predict life expectancy moments after a baby takes its first breath. If/when that comes to be, how will we handle it? Preventing the misuse of such technology is yet another reason to become better informed and engaged in the conversations shaping the genomics revolution now.

Key Genetic Clip


The moral of our story?

It’s totally OK – and FUN – to stretch and invent science to create:

  • a superhuman hunk of a war hero

  • a dinosaur park gone wrong

  • an army of clones for the Light Side

  • genes fused by a Brundle blunder

  • a genetic determinism dystopia

But, in real life genomics, we need to emphasize science over science-fiction and hype.

Not only that, but the implications are too important to be left solely in the hands of scientists and researchers. The genomics revolution will affect every human being sooner or later, so all of us need to be part of the conversation.