Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Biotech at the Movies

I won't claim to be a connoisseur of the cinema, but I enjoy a good movie. I don't get to the cinema much, but my Netflix queue should keep me busy for a long time.

Biotechnology doesn't show up much in the movies. The reason is simple: biotech isn't very cinematic. The drama is slow and not photogenic. Most movies with a biotech angle are science fiction, with the biotech not exactly wearing a white hat: think Gattaca or Jurassic Park.

Once in a while biotech shows up in a movie which isn't generally sci fi. For example, in Family Business grandfather Sean Connery and father Dustin Hoffman are trying to convince their biologist son, Matthew Broderick (who I once had a very slight resemblance to -- twice I had strangers say I almost looked like him) to abscond with a plasmid from his company. The lab settings, as I remember, looked pretty reasonable.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mission Impossible II, which had me out of breath from laughing, though I doubt this was the intent of the director. The evil biotech company devising some devious human virus has two facilities which Tom Cruise's character must raid. The first one is in an amazing downtown high-rise -- yeah, the VCs would spring for that. The second is a cave-like seaside complex, with dripping water & bats living in the eaves. Yes, the perfect place for propagating mammalian viruses via cell culture!

If you want to see some actual biotech space, though not fitted out for such, then go watch The Spanish Prisoner. The MacGuffin driving the plot is a secret formula -- whose very field of relevance is never mentioned -- which disappears & is chased through the rest of the movie. The company digs at the beginning of the movie are at One Kendall Square, just across the courtyard from my current workplace. If I'm not mistaken, the shoot was in the space which currently houses next generation sequencing shop Helicos Biosystems. This was once Millennium space, a common history for much biotech space in Cambridge, and one group setting up there was familiar with its history & let me in on the secret. Alas, their plans for a Spanish Prisoner screening there were short-circuited by one of the first rounds of 'reshaping'.

Coincidentally, I first saw The Spanish Prisoner while flying to Europe on a Millennium business trip, though even more appropriate would have been to see it at the cinema which is part of the One Kendall Square complex. We had the space then, though I was unaware of its history. I like the movie -- the language has a distinctive rhythm of Mamet but without (if I remember correctly) the torrents of foul language that characterize some of his other movies (though I do like Glengarry Glen Ross, which should be mandatory watching before contemplating any real estate transaction!).

I'm sure this isn't a comprehensive survey of cinematic biotech. Anyone got any other favorites?


Anonymous said...

In the movie "Tadpole" Sigourney Weaver is a biologist. There are only one or two scenes in the lab, but it is clearly a real bio lab, complete with Qiagen kits on the shelves. The only off thing is she is sitting at the lab bench looking at primary cultures of heart cells instead of in a hood.

Worst biology ever: Mission to Mars (or Red Planet, can't keep them straight). A character looks at about 10 basepairs of a cartoon DNA model and says "That looks like human DNA!"

Sandra Porter said...

My favorites are Lorenzo's oil and Medicine Man. I love it that they haul a gas chromatograph out to the rain forest to look for cancer cures.