March 2016

The science in science fiction

Sci-fi films have long posed questions about where the future of technology and science will take us. Often writers are inspired by some of the most exciting, and at times scary, developments being made in science. In this article I'll discuss three films that elevated medical science into popular culture. Warning, there may be spoilers!

Spring (2015) is one of those rare films that successfully bridged two seemingly incompatible genres- romance and horror. Spring tells a tale of young American man fleeing to Europe to escape his personal domestic troubles. Early on during his visit he encounters a 'femme fatale' in a beautiful Italian coastal town. As their romance seemingly blossoms, Evan becomes aware of his lover's dark secret. As a geneticist, Louise has discovered a way to ensure her immortality- through her stem cell research. The heroine describes how the use of embryonic stem cells allows her to be reborn every 20 years and remain young due to the embryonic stem cells replicating extremely quickly; allowing her to grow fast and heal fast. She goes on to emphasise the distinction between the effectiveness of embryonic stem cells over adult stem cells. Whilst only a short segment of the film is dedicated to her rather broad and unspecific explanations, the basic science she outlines-whilst obviously far-fetched in the context of this monster movie- contains some truisms. One of the films major themes is regeneration- and the incorporation of the concept of stem cells into the plot is a testament to the impact this exciting medical development is having on the modern mind. However this film was not the first to cast developments in medicine into the sci-fi arena.



One of the most important sci-fi films of the past twenty years, Gattaca (1997), directed by Andrew Niccol, raises some hugely important questions about genetics and IVF. Less than twenty years after the first baby was conceived through IVF in the 1980s, this film explored the treatment's possible medical end goals. The films depicts a society in which parents are able to determine their children's genetic makeup by hand-picking and erasing certain genetic imperfections from embryos' DNA. Whilst many of IVF's early controversies have grown to be accepted by a large portion of society, the film seems somewhat prophetic following the recent advancements being made in three-parent IVF. This method's major advantage is that it removes the chance of mitochondrial disease by replacing imperfect chromosomes from the female egg with those from another female egg. The British government in 2013 announced they had approved legislation for this treatment, and for the past two years have been drafting regulations to make it accessible as soon as possible. Developments such as this in IVF draw huge resemblances to the 1997 film, which seemed to have asked the pressing questions that surrounded the future of IVF then and now.

In Luc Besson's 1995 classic The Fifth Element, the director explored the future, for the first time on film, of 3D printing's medical potential. In one of the most memorable scenes, actress Mila Jovovich's character Leeloo is printed in a lab (see clip here: Whilst again, this may seem slightly far-fetched by our current technological standards, huge strides have been made in medicines' relationship with 3D printing. As The Guardian reported last year, it is in fact the medical industry which is and will drive the demand for 3D printers over the next decade. Already ears, blood vessels and bones have been printed successfully, and it looks like organs could be next in line as discussed in this interesting video: . Whilst the printing of complete human bodies seems incomprehensibly far away, it looks that huge strides are already being made in this direction. The bizarre dystopia portrayed in The Fifth Element may seem not so sci-fi in the not too distant future.



Other honourable mentions of films which have elevated medical science into popular culture are Children of Men (2006) (a future without any fertility), Elysium (2013) (ultra fast and effective radiology machines) and Brazil (1985) (the perils of addiction to plastic surgery). It is often said that culture reflects the atmosphere of the contemporary world in which it is conceived, and this adage is supported no better than when sci-fi films meet medical science.