“How did you manage to set free that terrible devil?” asks a Yakut poem, solemnly intoned near the beginning, and again at the end, of the documentary Genesis 2.0, which opens today (January 2) in New York. The film is a cautionary tale that winds two parallel arcs together like the strands of an artful double helix. In one, codirector Maxim Arbugaev follows Yakut “hunters” as they search remote islands in the north of Siberia for mammoth tusks to sell; in the other, director and producer Christian Frei documents a genetic engineering competition in Boston and follows the director of Russia’s Mammoth Museum in his quest to find a living mammoth cell that will, we’re told, allow the beast to be cloned.
As the Yakut poem indicates, the film is a warning, albeit vague; if this were Jurassic Park, it would stop after the explainer about the amber-embedded mosquito. For the Yakut hunters, who we’re told are violating a taboo by disturbing mammoth remains, the dangers are clear and concrete: hunger, polar bears, a menacing sea, and the ever-present threat of failing to find the big, high-quality tusks that will enable them to support their families.
On the biotech side, the devil is hinted at through moody lighting and soundtrack, and with statements like this one from George Church of Harvard University, voiced over a shot of the hunters’ wooden cabin: “Humans are very bold and they have vision and they will follow that, sometimes to their death.” But the dangers are largely left to the imagination. Synthetic biology, we’re told early on by a speaker at the competition in Boston, “is going to change everything.”
Church’s lab is planning to create a hybrid of the mammoth and an elephant. Semyon Grigoriev of the Mammoth Museum hopes to clone the ancient animal. He visits a company in Seoul that clones dogs for $100,000 each and the sequencing company BGI in Shenzhen, China, where we hear about eliminating Down syndrome through prenatal screening—an aim, one visitor notes, that has troubling ethical implications. Cloning the mammoth, we learn, is “a rehearsal for something much bigger”—taking control of evolution itself—but with what consequences? In the post–CRISPR-babies era, it may not be difficult for viewers to fill in the blanks for themselves.
In place of in-depth explanations of the science or detailed predictions, Genesis 2.0 creates a powerful sense of atmosphere. The barren, beautiful landscape of the New Siberian Islands is a dramatic foil to the manmade landscapes of Boston and Seoul, and the labs and conference centers where the scientists work are a world away from the muddy labor of the hunters. Yet the theme of disturbing nature unites them, as does the film’s focus on two brothers—Semyon, the would-be mammoth cloner, and Peter Grigoriev, a tusk hunter. The atmosphere is further burnished by the filmmaker’s focus on seemingly unimportant moments: an Arctic fox trying to steal a plastic container from the hunter’s camp; a worker vacuuming the fur of display mammoths at the museum. Even a roomful of puppies, clones made by the Seoul biotech, takes on a faintly unsettling cast.
Viewers hoping to learn much about synthetic biology and its future may find Genesis 2.0 unsatisfying. As Church tells us in the film, “synthetic biology is so recent and it’s happening so quickly, we don’t really know what it is yet.” Yet the film invites us to take a step back from the daily drumbeat of incremental scientific discoveries and ponder whether we are indeed unleashing a devil.