Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Genetics on the Big Screen

The Wellcome Trust human genome web site has an essay about the portrayal of genetics by Hollywood. The bottom line: most films get the technology, if not the biology, wrong.
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.
The site includes a companion essay on the history of genetics in film, and detailed reviews of GATTACA and The Sixth Day. The essay concludes that movies have the power to influence the way the public perceives genetics.
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. [. . .] 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.
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  1. I just can't believe that Hollywood would get anything wrong when it comes to science. These 'scientists' must have some kind of secret agenda they're pushing, like making money no matter what the social cost may be.

  2. I often wonder if the science depicted in film is wrong, but my background is so weak that I have no way of really knowing. It's interesting to know the scientific community notices and comments about this.


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