Blade Runner

Genetics and film studies

23/3/06. By Michael Clark

The scarcity of published academic work on genetics in film is partly compensated for by a number of useful electronic resources.

Despite the importance of genetic themes in some of the best-known Hollywood movies of the past 25 years or so, genetics in film has so far attracted relatively little attention in film studies circles. Indeed, the scientific aspects of genetic engineering, cloning etc. are usually sidestepped or ignored not only by screenwriters and directors but also by most academic writers on film.

Print-based sources

In common with most of science and medicine, genetics in film has remained a seriously unfashionable topic in recent work on film studies and film theory. Thus, for example, Scott Bukatman's otherwise excellent 1997 volume on 'Blade Runner' (1982) in the BFI Modern Classics series has nothing to say about biotechnology in the film, preferring to focus instead on its 'retro-fitted' look and the issues around replication, identity and autonomy raised in the film [see note 1 ].

Despite its promising title and terms of reference, Aylish Wood's 'Technoscience in Contemporary American Film: Beyond Science Fiction' (2002) has little to say about genetics or genetic engineering, while Sir Christopher Frayling's recent 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema' (2005) has a good deal to say about geneticists as leading contenders for the role of the mad or sociopathic scientist in contemporary sci-fi movies, but not about genetics as such [see note 2 ].

Even the French edited volume 'Le Cinéma et la Science' (1994), notable for being written largely by science educators, historians of science and scientific filmmakers rather than by art historians or film theorists, does not discuss genetics or biotechnology as such [see note 3 ]. Recent works on science education and the public understanding of science such as Mark C Glassy's 'The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema' (2001) and A Bowdoin Van Riper's 'Science in Popular Culture: A Reference Guide' (2002) contain many references to genetics and genetic engineering in popular cinema, but little by way of in-depth discussion or analysis [see note 4 ].

Electronic and web-based resources

However, the scarcity of published academic work on genetics in film is partly compensated for by a number of useful electronic resources. These include several online filmographies of (English-language) feature films with genetic themes, especially:

Of the web-based textual resources, by far the best is the British biologist, science writer and film buff Stephen Nottingham's e-book 'Screening DNA: Exploring the Cinema-Genetics Interface' (2000).

Nottingham's work is remarkable not only for its scientific literacy, but also for its breadth of coverage, including many European as well as English-language films, and for the variety of genetics-related themes it explores. In 'Screening DNA', detailed discussions of individual films like 'Blade Runner' and 'Jurassic Park' are smoothly integrated into long thematic essays on topics such as 'Know Thyself: Confronting the Clone' and even 'Are Movies Impeding the Progress of Biotechnology?', while relevant technical aspects of genetics and genetic engineering are explained clearly and concisely. The result is a unique blend of serious science writing with serious film criticism [see note 5 ].

Finally, although the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) is not generally a good place to search for accurate or well-informed comment on movies with scientific themes, two notable exceptions to this rule are the extended and intelligent 'user comments' on 'Blade Runner' and 'Gattaca', both of which repay close reading.

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. Scott Bukatman, 'Blade Runner' (BFI Modern Classics) (London: BFI Publishing, 1997).

2. Aylish Wood, 'Technoscience in Contemporary American Film: Beyond Science Fiction' (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); Christopher Frayling, 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema' (London: Reaktion Books, 2005).

3. Alexis Martinet (ed.), 'Le Cinéma et la Science' (Paris: CNRS Editions, 1994).

4. Mark C Glassy, 'The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema' (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland Books, 2001); A Bowdoin Van Riper, 'Science in Popular Culture: A Reference Guide' (Westport, Connecticut; Greenwood Press, 2002). See also Jon Turney, 'Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture' (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), especially pp. 202-207.

5. See also Nottingham's essays and reviews on individual films with genetic themes, and his recent 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).

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