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Review: ‘Errors of the Human Body’

Mutation, Experimentation, Regeneration, Oh My!

Above: Michael Eklund considers the implications of genetic engineering in "Errors of the Human Body."

Genetic engineering provides the backdrop for the sci-fi thriller "Errors of the Human Body" (opening May 3 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters for late night screenings only on Friday and Saturday).

"Errors of the Human Body" arrives after Brandon Cronenberg's "Antiviral" and at the same time as "Iron Man 3." All three deal -- although in very different ways -- with notions of genetic engineering. If the atom bomb fueled the sci-fi of the 1950s with fears of what could go wrong, then genetic engineering seems to be driving a lot of contemporary fears about what science can do now. One of the things fueling the current trend is this sense of body horror, a fear of what gene splicing, genetic engineering, viruses, pharmaceuticals, whatever... might do to us. This dovetails with the technology advances in film itself, which allows filmmakers to explore that fear with special effects that are getting better and better.

In "Errors of the Human Body," Geoff (Michael Eklund) leaves the U.S. for the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. Once there he reconnects with Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth), a former intern he had been attracted to. Now she's working on genetic research that conjures up some painful memories for Geoff because his son had died of a bizarre genetic mutation as an infant. As frequently occurs in such genre films, some scientist are motivated by genuinely good intentions to create science that can help humanity in some way. But then there are also the twin dangers oft depicted of the science either going horribly wrong or getting into the hands of someone without good intentions.

Director and co-writer Eron Sheean, doesn't want us to be terrified of genetic research and engineering -- he doesn't depict them as evil -- but he does suggest caution. His films wants us to consider the how experiments are run and for what purpose, and why scientists pursue certain ideas and to what end. He also tries to tie these questions to a story that has a strong emotional component, in this case a scientist who has very personal and first hand experience with tragedy.

Sheean presents a compelling premise and his film plays out like a tense thriller with a painful emotional core. But Sheean doesn't have the talent or panache of the Cronenbergs (father David and son Brandon) to raise his film to a higher artistic level where it can really provoke and dazzle. Sheean is a solid filmmaker who occasionally shows flashes of inspiration, as in a horrific nightmare scene that jolts Geoff. But his script might have benefited from a little less of the romantic entanglements of the characters and a little more attention to building the sense of tension and horror. The film is well shot by Anna Howard. It's a fim made up of mostly cool colors set against the chilly Dresden scenery.

I wanted to include the director’s statement from the press kit because it adds insight into the film and might encourage more thought or discussion about his work, and that’s something I always enjoy.

The story and themes of the film are influenced by my personal experiences as a foreigner not just in the former East Germany, with its residual ghosts, but in this foreign world of science: in the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. It was here I spent over two years as an artist in residence and had the opportunity to observe and participate in many amazing and strange experiments on what is the frontier of modern (molecular biology) medicine: a world where the outcomes by our own disease and death in lower organisms such as flies and worms are being shaped by our own genetic intervention. In this arena, science-fiction is a redundant term.

The knowledge and experience gained from my time as an ‘embedded artist’ has placed me in a uniquely privileged position to make a film that counteracts some of the simplistic assumptions about genetic research, yet doesn’t shy away from the slippery ethics of experimentation and how genetics is remodeling our perceptions of what it is to be ‘human’.

In thinking about the themes of this story, I asked myself, what is the main conflict in scientific research? And what is the cost of progress? I was imaging all the medical advances we take for granted and the veiled experiments and sacrifices made throughout history in an attempt to improve our lives. Have they been to the detriment of our humanity? Clearly not, and yet we shouldn’t have unconstrained, unlimited scope in the way we approach research. There must still be limits, because we are dealing with real lives.

When dealing with this complex issue, the challenge for stories such as Errors is to explore the assumptions, fears and fault lines that influence our attitudes to genetic research, as well as the ethical dilemmas and personal situations scientists deal with in the course of their work. Geoff represents this conflict: he is a scientist who is the experimenter becoming the experiment, born with an allegorical mutation, a ‘miraculous’ gene that has both the potential to harm and to heal. How does he reconcile he has become the specimen and not just the scientist, that he reduced his own child to tissue samples? Are his own experiments on his child’s disease necessary for the good of humanity? Perhaps technically they are, but scientific research does not occur in isolation: it cannot take place beyond the ethical codes of the real community, and its corresponding checks and balances - and it can’t ignore human emotional needs. Errors examines the dangers of divorcing science from the human, moral and ethical concerns broader society lives by.

It is not my intention to use the film to make a moral statement about genetic intervention and determination, but to engage people to consider what it is to be human in a time where we have the power to influence our species like never before. Ultimately, the film is the human story of a scientist, and although the narrative is fantastical and allegorical at times, it is essentially a drama. The story’s about a man who, though trying to do the right thing, by avoiding the confrontation with his deeper emotional issues and moral responsibilities sets off an even more confronting chain of events.

“Errors of the Human Body” (unrated) tackles a contemporary fear about the way modern science can go wrong.

Companion viewing: “Splice,” “Antiviral,” “Gattaca” “Island of Dr. Moreau,” "The Fly"

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