In the film Gattaca, there is a scene where a set of new parents are consulting a doctor about genetically altering the baby they wish to conceive. When they posit that maybe it’s better to leave a few things to chance, the doctor scoffs and tells them they want to give their baby the best possible start. The film is a warning about the kind of future that genetic engineering and eugenics could create. That hasn’t stopped us from researching this science, though, and in 2018 Dr He Jiankui (JK for short), a geneticist in China, created the first genetically edited human embryos.
Make People Better follows the story of JK in two parallel tracks. One in the build-up to this achievement discusses the ethical implications of literally making people better—the other counts down toward JKs eventual arrest and disappearance by the Chinese government.
In many ways, Make People Better takes the film of a thriller. Tense music, talking heads warning of danger, clips of JK saying controversial things, and a literal countdown to his arrest. In this way, though, it ends up leaning perhaps a little too far into the intrigue of the situation. It is already a fascinating subject and a story with many twists and turns, and by announcing the end of that story right at the start, some of the mystery and thrill around how the world is going to react to what he has done is lost.
Still, even with the chosen structure, there’s no denying a compelling story when you see one. Moreover, the moral and ethical ramifications discussed are fascinating in terms of what genetic changes might be made and the secretive manner and dubious motivation of JK and his team.
It sometimes feels like the future is rushing at us head-on faster than we can react to it and that we’re making choices without fully considering the consequences. JKs story is an example of that –and a warning about it– and Make People Better brings that point home.
Make People Better played as part of Hot Docs 2022.
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