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Genetic Linkage

JIM: More Compelling Than GATTACA

"Jim" the film is the brilliant brainchild of self-taught filmmaker Jeremy Morris-Burke.
For 15 years, the film GATTACA has been synonymous with “genetic dystopian future,” and has become a mainstay of genetics classrooms. But I’ve found a better film. It’s called, simply, JIM.

I never could connect with GATTACA, the dark tale of an assumed genetic identity in a society where the quality of one’s genome dictates all. Perhaps because in 1997, the pre-genome era, the idea of ordering a DNA test over the Internet was still science fiction. But ironically GATTACA’s “not-too-distant” future, in which a genetically inferior “invalid” impersonates a “valid” to achieve a dream, sets up a too-obvious conflict, with the details and resolution contrived. I know this from years of reading fiction and watching soap operas.

Although Jim, released in late 2010, shares with GATTACA the premise of widespread genetic enhancement, it’s much more subtle and nuanced. The film struck me with its stunning possibility, and the intentional gaps in the glimpse of future history still have me thinking a week later.

My daughter and I discovered Jim on Netflix. We’d just suffered through an endless two hours waiting for the world to end in Melancholia, when Sarah found it.

“Clones! Genetic enhancement! Apocalypse! This movie was made for you!”

She clicked Play but then frowned. “But now I have to listen to you scream at all the scientific errors!”

The movie started, and we both went back to our laptops, half listening, glancing up occasionally.

A little while later, Sarah looked at me, puzzled. “Why aren’t you yelling? There should’ve been mistakes by now.”

But I had already put my laptop aside, stunned.

“There aren’t any.”

“Not even a genetic code error?”


And for the next two hours, we were both completely sucked in.

“Jim” juxtaposes the worlds of now and the future. The film opens with a being from a ruined future announcing that he was born many years after his parents died. And then we’re thrown back to the contemporary, familiar world of Jim (played by Dan Illian) and Susan (Vanessa Morris-Burke) Kotofsky, a thirty-something, financially-strapped couple contemplating parenthood, and presumably the future being’s parents.

Susan discovers a lump in her breast. After she dies from an experimental cancer treatment, Jim faces mounting medical bills, unemployment and the indignity of looking for work, and escalating isolation and despair. Fortunately (or not) Susan had her eggs frozen, and Jim sees a glimmer of hope in using them to have a child – with his sperm and the help of biotech company Lorigen.

I sat forward, on the alert for technical errors in the slick biotech sequences, but heard nary a one. I cheered when the white-coated, female biotech exec repeatedly said “genetic sequence” and not the perpetually misused "individual genetic codes." (Hello, Jurassic Park.)

(The genetic code is, historically, the correspondence between DNA/RNA triplet and amino acid, deciphered in the early 1960s, earning a Nobel. Today it’s used like "computer code," which leads to errors because the code, the correspondence, is universal – if it weren’t so, we wouldn’t have much of biotechnology. I admit I am a pain in the ass about this.)

Lorigen, which screens, filters, and modifies clients’ genes, offers Jim 3 options for genetically enhancing his child-to-be, from "self-starter" to "sure-thing" to "executive privilege." All carry the "legacy guarantee" that promises a 236-year lifespan, with an 88% chance that 230 of those years will be productive and healthy, with a quick and painless end. Jim can also purchase the "genetic sequencing enhancement" that offers perfect symmetry, resistance to bacteria and viruses, enhanced height, and a self-regulating metabolism.

On a future post-human, super-industrialized Earth, Niskaa (Michael Strelow), whom we met at the start, leads a race of worker clones that have clearly seen better days.

In this dead and devastated world, only a few naturally-born humans remain, the vast majority having long since left in an exodus to Mars. Over time, the clones have gone downhill, the consequence, I suspect, of accumulating somatic mutations.

But one maintenance clone has mutated in a positive way. The androgynous #3774 (Abigail Savage), like Data the android from Star Trek: Next Generation, struggles with feelings and thoughts. "I wish I was like the other clones. The world I saw in my dreams was so different. How did things get this way?" He/she too is a descendant of Jim and Susan’s augmented genetic material, and somehow sees Jim in dreams.

The film leaves key unanswered questions, from the practical – Under what circumstances did Jim and Susan’s child come into existence? How did Niskaa and the clones populate the Earth? – to the philosophical – What does it mean to be human?

As the movie ended, I jotted down the name of its creator – self-taught filmmaker Jeremy Morris-Burke, whose wife Vanessa plays doomed Earth mother Susan. His Director’s Statement describes how he wrote, directed, shot and edited the film, an effort "about as DIY as it gets." He has an MFA from NYU. Intrigued by his command of the science, I found him on LinkedIn, and picked his brain.

RL: How did you get the idea for "Jim"?

JMB: I was originally interested in a story for the stage about a typical Midwest guy getting pummeled by the pressures of life and society. I kept imagining him having a breakdown in his kitchen. One day a girl, Susan, shows up in his life and they go on this Bonnie and Clyde crazy spree in retaliation for their bad luck. They want to have a baby, but the law is closing in on them and they decide they'll have to use some kind of genetic company so they can have the kid even if they're arrested and kept apart.

The story evolved and became more subtle. An over-simplified explanation of genetics wouldn't work, because people were beginning to understand so much more about genes as information. That seemed richer than any fiction I could dream up.

I started reading about the potential benefits and drawbacks of genetic modification and became fascinated by the ethical conundrums lurking around every corner. So I tried to rough out a story that included as many of those themes as I could, without getting too weighted down by technical details. I wanted to keep the focus on this man desperately trying to make something of his life before it all slips away, and on the idea of genes as legacy. That seemed a realistic way to make the bad decisions Jim makes seem plausible and sympathetic, while allowing me to bring in all the ideas about gene therapies and even cloning in a way that seemed not just possible, but imminent.

RL: You’re an artist, not a scientist, yet the film gets every detail right. How did you accomplish this?

JMB: The accuracy was borne of trying to make a story where you didn't get pulled out of the characters' world by obviously bad science. Also, I have such enormous respect for the people who are breaking new genetic ground and such a fascination with the idea that we can drive our own evolution, for better or worse, that it was very important to me to get it right. I really wanted to learn as much as I could about the advances being made because they'll impact me as much as anyone.

Most of my research came from books. Francis Fukuyama's "Our Posthuman Future" and the President's Council on Bioethics were very informative and thought-provoking sources early on. And I especially liked that the council was approaching the issue as a humanist one, rather than religious or economic.

RL: How can people view the film?

JMB: Right now the best place to see the film is online via Amazon, YouTube, and Netflix. I hope to have DVDs by the end of the year.

RL: See it!

This blog was first published 11/22/12 at http://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/.
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