Movie review: Doc Human Nature strikes a nerve in the age of coronavirus – The Patriot Ledger

Posted: April 1, 2020 at 9:47 am

Documentary "Human Nature" examines how gene editing can help - and hurt - humanity.

If youre familiar with the Replicates from Blade Runner, the velociraptors from Jurassic Park or the genetic engineering so chillingly laid out in Aldous Huxleys novel Brave New World, youll be fascinated by how much science fiction has become science fact in Adam Bolts Human Nature. And its all due to CRISPR (pronounced crisper), a gene-altering technology that not only could facilitate designer babies, but possibly play a central role in putting the clamps on another acronym, COVID-19.

That timeliness is obviously on the side of Human Nature, a snazzy-looking documentary using sparkling graphics and top geneticists, journalists and one very adorable sickle-cell anemic to spell out a complicated subject in compelling, easy-to-grasp terms. But that same timeliness also works against it, given how now is not an advantageous moment for the films commercial aspects amid a landscape of shuttered theaters and a frightened populace whod like to avoid anything to do with medicine and science as sources of entertainment.

Yet, that double-edged sword fits snuggly in the wheelhouse of CRISPR (short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a microorganism able to locate and repair defective DNA, as well as fend off invading viruses like COVID-19 by acting as a defense shield mimicking the offenders own DNA. But like the Internet, a revolutionary breakthrough for which CRISPR is often compared, theres a serious downside involving the morality of whether humans should have the right to, as the film calls it, play God. Namely, should parents be allowed to treat an embryo the same way theyd approach ordering a pizza? Well have the regular with blue eyes, blonde hair and an IQ of Einstein. Oh, and could you throw in some immense athletic ability, too?

Clearly, CRISPR has the potential to put us at the mercy of the type of mad scientists weve become accustomed to in just about every Bond film ever made. One geneticist, whose very name, Jennifer Doudna, includes DNA, admits having had a nightmare in which she comes face-to-face with Adolf Hitler! Are we willing to toy with the very real prospect of creating a master race?

Thats just one of the troubling questions Bolt confronts you with while weighing the pros and cons of a new frontier brimming in possibilities and danger. Personally, I come down on the side of CRISPRs benefits, particularly after meeting David Sanchez, a teen with sickle cell thats spent about half of his young life in hospitals receiving precious blood transfusions. Hes smart, personable and amazingly brave, so much so, you cant help but be all in when CRISPR offers him a chance at a more normal life. Yet, hes just as quick to recall to how hes learned to embrace -- even appreciate -- his illness because its made him a better, more resourceful kid, insights he would not have acquired had CRISPR been available when he was in utero. See? Hes torn, too.

Do we embrace a discovery wielding the promise of curing and preventing cancers and birth defects, or shun it for its ability to rob us of our unique individuality? Its a compelling argument I frankly wish Bolt had expanded more upon in his movies all-too-brief 90 minutes. But whats here is more than enough to spark a multitude of kitchen-table conversations about where we should set the limits on science, and more importantly, who should be making those decisions.

Given the disarray COVID-19 has put the world in, now probably isnt the time for us to evaluate, especially when CRISPR could well determine our fate by ridding our planet of a crippling plague. But what about after? Will, as Trump is fond to say, the cure be worse than the disease? Its a question for which Human Nature holds no answers, only utopian and despotic possibilities well be forced to uneasily choose between when and if the time comes.

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Movie review: Doc Human Nature strikes a nerve in the age of coronavirus - The Patriot Ledger

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