Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Depiction of Cloning in the Movies

PodBlack Blog made an interesting post about science in the movies that points to a 2006 study at Biotechnology Australia that focused on cloning in the movies (report PDF). Their concern is that one of the major sources of information on human cloning is the movies, and the way that the science and scientists are portrayed can have a significant influence on public opinion.

They looked at 33 different movies and divided them into five categories:
  1. "Contemporary Social Realism": set in the present or near future, presented as realistic
    Example: The Boys from Brazil, Jurassic Park
  2. "Future Social Realism": set in the future, presented as realistic
    Example: The Island
  3. "Science Fiction/Fantasy": set in the far future or a distant galaxy
    Examples: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Star Trek:Nemesis
  4. Comedy
    Examples: Sleeper, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
  5. "Gone and Forgotten": Movies that tanked at the box office or are rarely seen
    Examples: The Clones of Bruce Lee, Replikator: Cloned to Kill
The movies were rated for scientific accuracy and their "key message" - whether the science or scientists are evil and the social implications of the cloning. Not surprisingly, they found that the most common message in the movies is that "corporations or scientists operate in their own interests and outside of regulation, and are willing to kill to cover up what they've done." Cloning is portrayed as unnatural, with the moral "mess with nature and it will mess with you."

The best of the bunch science-wise:
Boys from Brazil (1978), staring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier and James Levin, and based on the novel by Ira Levin.
Type: Contemporary Social Realism
Cloned (1997), starring Elizabeth Perkins and Bradley Whitford. This movie is "one of the few films that has a fairly accurate portrayal of he science of cloning."
Type: Contemporary Social Realism
Blueprint (2002). This German film is more focused on the ethical and social issues of cloning, rather than the science.
Type: Contemporary Social Realism
Clone High (2002), an MTV animated series.
Type: Comedy
Anna To the Infinite Power (1982), based on a novel by Mildred Ames
Type: Gone and Forgotten
Creator (1985), starring Peter O'Toole.
Type: Gone and Forgotten
The Cloning of Joanna May (1991), a British Granada Television program, based on the Fay Weldon novel.
Type: Gone and Forgotten
The Third Twin (1997), based on a Ken Follett thriller.
Type: Gone and Forgotten

I don't think that it's particularly surprising that the most scientifically-realistic movies are those set in the near future, and have few science-fictional elements other than human cloning (does that make them mundane SF?). Scientific accuracy isn't what makes a box office hit, though. Blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones end up influencing popular culture simply because so many people have seen them. That's which is why their science is worth discussing, even if it has little basis in real life.

Biotechnology Australia followed up with a second report, "Biotechnology at the Movies", which looks at a wider range of movies, from The Andromeda Strain (1971) to Children of Men (2006). Their conclusion:
"The study concluded that the science was, for the most part, seriously flawed, and that while the films may raise awareness, the quality of public debate on biotechnology is not generally enhanced by its depiction in films."
I'm doubt that will change any time soon, since stories with scientists oblivious to the ethical implications and potentially dangerous consequences of their experiments sell movie tickets.

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  1. Peggy,if I remember well there was a movie named The sixth day having the theme of cloning !I found it a real mind boggling thing .

  2. Anonymous4:40 AM

    Thanks for reading! :) I first saw their presentation at the World Science and Technology Education conference here in Perth and they had a great discussion about their work. I'm hoping that they'll present it again (perhaps with an update) at the next Australian Skeptics conference later this year. :)


  3. Anonymous4:59 AM

    Oh, I am dying to get my hands on 'Blueprint', which they said was probably the best in the bunch. 'GATTACA' was also much approved of and led me to teach it in conjunction with the science dept at my school. :)

  4. Arvind: The 6th Day is one of the movies they looked at. It got a rating of "very low" for the accuracy of it's science. Since Arnie S. is the star, I expect there's a lot of action in it!

    Podblack: I'd love to see Blueprint too. It looks like it's available from German Amazon.com, but I don't know if European DVDs will play on non-European DVD players (and, of course, it would be in German).

    GATTACA is great because it's both an entertaining movie, and because it focuses on the issue of human genetic engineering realistically (at least realistic for Hollywood). There aren't many movies that fit that bill.

  5. Arvind, I must say that I agree with Peggy, The 6th Day was terrible. The science was bad on the level of Species-- a movie which famously violated the law of conservation of matter.

    GATTACCA, on the other hand, was brilliant-- and oh my God, I just realized something! I feel like an idiot, but I never realized until just now that the title of that movie comes from a nucleotide base-pair sequence. Was I the only one who never noticed that before?

    ---Kosmo http://kosmoslabbook.blogspot.com/

  6. Kosmo
    I quite agree with you,but the movie is just fantastic,I till remember some cloning clash scenes...sometimes I feel that films should not be taken too seriously for science ,they are for entertainment only.But yes there should not be bad science communication as well.And yes GATTACCA kind is really interesting ,how any one else could guess it what it is really about if you being GENE geek yourself could not figure it out.But your comment kindled interest in me to see the movie.thanks.

  7. Arvind: I agree that movies can be totally entertaining, even if the science is awful. However, it's nice if the film at least tries to have scientific verisimilitude.

    Kosmo: I think GATTACA works as a "sciencey sounding" title, even if you don't immediately notice that it's a nucleotide sequence. It would have been even cooler from my biogeek perspective if it had been a real restriction endonuclease cleavage site sequence. Most of those aren't pronounceable, though.

  8. Anonymous4:48 AM

    The 2008 release, "Lost in New Mexico: the strange tale of Susan Hero", falls into the social realism category, but not so neatly...it's described as a "21st century cloning road movie" by it producers.

    Take a look at http://www.lostinnewmexicomovie.com and decide for yourselves, I guess!


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