Like any good science documentary, “Human Nature” starts with a hypothesis. The filmmakers posit that audiences are bored by the dry format of most science docs, but that there is a better strategy for presenting complex concepts about biology in a way that both educates and entertains. That’s hardly a novel idea, dating back at least as far as Walt Disney’s “True-Life Adventure” series and advanced by everything from Imax to “Schoolhouse Rock!” over the years. Still, the team behind “Human Nature” are innovating with adult viewers in mind, and to test their theory, they’ve taken a subject that’s getting lots of attention but only limited understanding: CRISPR.
It’s a smart hook on which to hang what could be the first of many such features for the Wonder Collaborative, since the discovery of CRISPR — a catchy name for a microscopic phenomenon, which describes repeating DNA sequences found in bacteria that have given scientists a precision tool to splice and edit the genome of humans and other life forms — plays into many people’s anxieties of science overstepping its bounds. “Human Nature” hardly ignores those fears, raising the irresistible comparison to “Jurassic Park” (“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!” as Jeff Goldblum puts it in that sci-fi cautionary tale), but mostly, the movie wants to focus on the positive real-world applications CRISPR could offer.
That’s why director Adam Bolt begins the film not with visions of dinosaurs being resurrected, but by introducing audiences to David Sanchez, a young man with sickle cell anemia who could potentially be saved by the alteration of the single DNA molecule thought to cause the life-threatening condition. David is a remarkable kid who’s part of an experimental study at Stanford Children’s Hospital, showing a maturity brought on by adjusting to the disorder. He’s already lost a friend to leukemia, and he understands that CRISPR could make the difference in his own long-term survival, but he might surprise you when asked if he would prefer to have been born with healthy red blood cells. “I don’t think I’d be me if I didn’t have sickle cell,” he responds.
It’s a simple answer, but one that offers a profound alternate perspective to those who might advocate using CRISPR to eliminate such a condition in sperm and eggs cells, such that the putatively positive mutation could be passed along to future generations. One of the film’s more colorful experts, Fyodor Urnov, is dead set against such genetic modifications, a case he and several colleagues made in an article for Nature magazine with the unambiguous title “Don’t edit the human germ line.” But their admonitions haven’t stopped scientists from editing away, and again, as in the earlier “Jurassic Park” aside, the movie floats dystopian comparisons to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel “Brave New World” (which anticipated in vitro fertilization by 46 years) and the Replicants of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”
It’s chilling to see footage of Vladimir Putin speculating about the notion that CRISPR could be used to engineer soldiers “who can fight without fear or pain,” although a reasonable-sounding bioethicist named Alta Charo helps put things in perspective by explaining that the new tool isn’t fundamentally good or evil: “What you do with the power determines if the result is something we applaud or something we deplore. But it’s not the tool that determines the endpoint, it’s the user,” she says.
If “Human Nature” feels different from other science docs, that’s largely because it seems to have one foot planted in the realm of hard science and the other pointed as far skyward as possible, engaging with the philosophical and moral implications of speculative applications for such technology. (One can almost imagine a follow-up documentary on the science of time travel, complete with serious-minded debates about going back to stop Hitler.) As the “Brave New World” example demonstrates, concerns about genetic manipulation have been around for decades. If anything, we have alarmist science fiction visionaries to thank for helping society work out certain thought experiments in advance of actual lab tests. Today, a company called eGenesis is CRISPR-modifying pig organs for potential human transplant — although it’s no stranger than 200-year-old experiments to graft unaltered monkey glands into human subjects.
For a breakthrough that can only be studied with a high-powered microscope, CRISPR opens up a seemingly infinite number of considerations. What really sets Bolt’s documentary apart aren’t its technical aspects (playful montages, as when made-to-order babies are likened to Model T assembly lines, and hi-def cinematography that uses various tricks to render talking heads more visually compelling) or creative use of B-roll and pop-culture film clips; it’s the ingenuity of its structure. Beginning with David Sanchez as it does, “Human Nature” gives audiences a personal stake in the subject before delving into some pretty serious science, all of which has been thoughtfully organized into an easy-to-follow logical flow.
The experts tend to gesticulate a lot when they talk, but their explanations are made comprehensible by clean, clear animation of CRISPR segments and the CAS-9 proteins that snip DNA at a predetermined point (the analogy to a word-processing cursor also simplifies things considerably). The broader ethical considerations come as food for thought, while reminding audiences why understanding the basic principles of this emerging field are so important. Whereas some of those digressions confuse more than they illuminate, the real achievement of “Human Nature” is that it takes a complex subject and distills it into such an engaging 95-minute package. That’s the successful experiment underlying this particular project, in which viewers happen to serve as the guinea pigs in how such technical information can be presented in a more effective way.