DNA Day: 11 of the most insane big-screen DNA experiments

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Apr 25, 2017

62 years ago today, molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick shocked the bio community (and the rest of us) when they revealed what we now recognize as the double-helix structure of DNA. Based on the structure suggested by an X-ray image taken by colleagues Rosalind Franklin (who I personally feel never gets enough credit) and Raymond Gosling, the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid unleashed endless experimentation possibilities which were the stuff of scientific dreams and nightmares.

Of course, Hollywood was destined to become inspired by everything that could possibly go wrong in a petri dish. What started as a biological breakthrough birthed a brood of mutant movies that were the spawn of sci-fi imagination spliced with terrifying truth.

From frighteningly human hybrids to extreme extraterrestrials to things that should have never been brought back from extinction, these 11 genetically engineered movies theorize just how far science could go — and probably shouldn't.

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The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

If morphing into a human spider from one bite of a genetically altered arachnid doesn't blow your mind, it's difficult to say what will. Whatever Oscorp means to do with these eight-legged freaks, they end up creating not a monster but a superhero. Something in that venom replaces parts of Peter's DNA with spider DNA and soon has him shooting webs out of his hands and swinging from skyscrapers. Never mind the weird science here (there is no way you could possibly develop spontaneous superpowers by replacing three of your three billion DNA pairs), you have to admit it's pretty astounding when a spider bite lands you among the Avengers instead of in the emergency room waiting for anti-venom.

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Splice (2009)

Evidence of why creating hybrids of human and animal DNA is never a good idea and mating mutants is even worse: your specimen could very nearly kill you. There may also be no way to destroy the thing since it's too violent to overcome, won't drown because it's amphibious, and even has a stinger. That these scientific shenanigans are illegal (at least in the film's universe) only complicates the moral and ethical implications of bringing forth a species that was never naturally meant to exist. Though Dren is created as a potential treasure trove of biochemical compounds that could cure humans from previously incurable diseases, watching her ransack the lab and turn on her own creators will make you question every genetic engineering experiment ever.

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The Fly (1986)

Seth Brundle fancies himself a scientific genius after inventing a telepod that transports inanimate objects and possibly, he thinks, something alive (never mind that one minor glitch when it turned a live baboon inside-out). He unfortunately forgets to check for any unwanted guests when he takes the telepod plunge himself. What Brundle thinks is increased physical and bedroom prowess are the genes of Musca domestica slowly turning him into a superhuman household pest. Brundlefly is quite the creature: with bulbous, insectile eyes, spindly limbs covered in hair and mouthparts you don't want anywhere near your popcorn as you're watching this movie, his mutant form is still some of the most repugnant nightmare fodder of all time.

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The Boys From Brazil (1978)

Finding out Hitler is still alive is horrifying enough, but 94 of him? Imagine Dr. Mengele continuing his ghastly human experiments after the war and injecting the Fuhrer's preserved DNA into 94 human eggs that are later implanted into Brazilian surrogates who end up birthing a whole new brood of tyrants. Mysterious murders follow at the hands of child perpetrators who all have eerily similar black hair and blue eyes. You would think the existence of that many clones would result in the assassination of everybody but themselves in the end. Then there is that lingering question about whether DNA can really determine your fate. The tyranny switch wasn't flipped in Bobby for some reason — so annihilating them all may not be the final solution.

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Mimic (1997)

Behemoth bugs that would give even Franz Kafka nightmares infest this dystopian vision of a Manhattan where the only solution to killer cockroaches is genetically engineering another breed of killer cockroaches. Screwing with nature can have disastrous consequences even if the experiment is spawned from good intent, which is apparently something the scientists involved are too myopic to see. When the appropriately named Judas subspecies betrays its original purpose by evolving to mirror its predator — humans — the slimy underground gross-out factor crawls off the charts. You know a roach is more than a roach when it has a humanoid face. Kill it with fire.

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Godsend (2004)

Cloning someone you loved may mitigate your grief for a while — until the clone sets off on a murder spree. It's morbid enough when desperate parents have their dead son cloned, but you never know what's going on behind that lab door, because what makes this exponentially worse than just your standard sci-fi movie human cloning experiment is that the doctor had ulterior motives. Don't trust anyone with DNA you don't want to be tampered with unless you're totally fine with the possibility of having it mixed with that of the juvenile serial killer by a doctor desperate to bring his own homicidal son back from the grave. By the way, you only find that out when someone unearths a body. Death should stay final.

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Gattaca (1997)

This is genetic engineering and prejudice on a Brave New World scale, a DNA-by-design society in which anyone who is not the product of a petri dish is branded 'in-valid' and doomed to cower in the shadow of those conceived in a lab. Equally gripping are the extents aspiring rocket scientist Vincent has to go to in order to shoot to his dream of being blasted off into space someday. Usually, forging documents is enough to steal a person's identity (at least in the movies), but forging DNA involves both conspiring with a 'valid' to use samples from his blood down to his fingerprints, plus triathlon-level training to convince the rest of the genetically enhanced crew your body is biologically flawless. Spoiler: it works.

The Giver (2014)

If a government wants to have an iron grip on its people, one way to do that is to make sure they are all bred to be completely colorblind and void of emotion. The eugenics here are insidious, with those considered genetically inferior quietly scheduled for 'release' (aka lethal injection). Jonas' sparks of unfamiliar sensations make it obvious that no one thought of recessives in their quest to obliterate anything defective in the human genome. While The Giver may not involve undercover experiments in a sketchy lab after dark, the shock value is in the blueprint of what human society would look like and (not) feel like drained of color and feeling and memory — and the question of what it really means to be human.

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Jurassic Park (1993)

The movie that I wasn't allowed to see as a kid in the '90s because "dinosaurs eat people" according to every terrified parent within a one-mile radius features one of the biggest, toothiest, scaliest cinematic DNA experiments of all time. You know things are about to get huge when you build a theme park of a recreated Jurassic age with reanimated dino DNA you cloned into hordes of giant reptiles — which do bite. Looking at this film under a microscope reveals a heated debate on genetic engineering that unleashes the darker side of resurrecting species that evidently went extinct for a reason.

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The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

This is why the last place you want to go on vacation is an island overrun with human-animal hybrids. Like Jurassic Park, the screen adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau is another case of a shockingly large-scale experiment that warps the idea of humanity by injecting human DNA into animals that later regress to savagery. Which is probably what would happen when you have creatures like Hyena-Swine sick of having their behavior controlled by a tyrant scientist's pain-inducing microchips. Are they human animals or animalistic humans? Monstrous things happen when you mess with the natural order. Seeing something with the face of a werewolf showing any trace of empathy or emotion at all is surreal enough to make your skin crawl.

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Alien: Resurrection (1997)

What the government is willing to do for science is both chest-bursting and mind-blowing. Not only is the dead Ripley cloned and sliced open to extract an extraterrestrial queen that resulted from her own genes intermingling with alien DNA (an atrocity in itself) but the military is actually breeding these things on an unprecedented level. It's impossible to decide whether the fact that they breed them on a spaceship (some things are clearly not meant to live on this planet or even something that comes from this planet) or how they decided to breed them (unwilling human hosts) is more monstrous. The Xenomorph hybrid that emerges from the alien queen's womb as a result of Ripley's lingering DNA is also beyond grotesque.