Film Review – ALGENY: The Genetic Factor
On August 26, 2006, Green Glass Films began production on ALGENY: The Genetic Factor. Written and directed by Andrew Burroughs, this movie was inspired by Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Biotech Century . In that book, Rifkin coined the term “algeny”, when an organism upgrades its biology.
This led to the movie’s story about a young man named Justin (played by Alfred E. Rutherford), an orphan who is about to propose to his girlfriend and who has been getting shots for several years due to an illness he doesn’t understand. But Justin’s life changes when he realizes a man is following him one day. Very quickly, he discovers that he has never been ill, that his blood, in fact, has a perfect defense system that shields him from any disease. And unfortunately for him, a major pharmaceutical company knows about him and wants him dead before any number of cures and vaccines can be developed from his blood samples.
The movie has been screed at several film festivals since its completion and has won several awards. It was the winner for “HBO Best Feature Film” at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival and winner of the Paul Robeson Award at the Newark Black Film Festival. It was the official selection at Berlin/Germany Black International Cinema and the American Black Film Festival.
So how was it?
There seems to be an increasing belief among people that if a film is “science fiction”, it has to involve robots, strange weapons and tech, some explosions, and/or super-powers that defy physics. Algeny: The Genetic Factor reminds us that a science fiction story can be, primarily, a think piece and only has to be one step removed from our own reality.
The opening of the film throws us right into the thick of things. There’s a special child, parents on the run, and a conspiracy that threatens them all. After the cold open, parts of the film’s beginning seem a bit slow and heavy on exposition. But once the main story starts, the movie reminds us that this isn’t a story where the chase scenes are the main focus of the story. The main focus is on Justin and what these revelations about his biology mean for his life, both its future and its past, and for the world.
The film has a very strong focus on the nature of family. Never knowing his parents, Justin is intensely loyal to those who care for him and were with him as he grew up. And it is fitting that only now, when he is hoping to start a family of his own, does he learn the truth of his parents and just how hopeless it might be for someone with a target on his head to want to settle down with a normal life. Rutherford does a fine job of giving us a character who we sympathize with and fear for. His mistakes are understandable and not the kind that make audiences face-palm with frustration just so that the plot can progress.
In most films of this kind, we would have at least a third of the action taking place at the pharmaceutical company. We would see people in lab coats doing unethical experiments as businessmen watched them and hatched sinister schemes that would make them rich. There would be Orwellian implications and a feeling that these rich, corporate big shots are above the law and act almost as their own government, with capable agents and technology that outshine local authorities.
But this movie takes a different approach. You never see the company in its full glory nor do we get the implication that they’re all powerful. Their agent is a dangerous and vicious person, yes, but this isn’t like the typical movie assassin who is basically a modern-day ninja who can follow you home and kill you in your sleep without ever worrying about discovery. It’s a little jarring at first to make the antagonists seem more human, but this actually emphasizes a major point of the movie: that this could actually happen.
In history, we’ve seen many cases where large companies or government researches abused their position for the sake of experimentation or protection of power. A scene in the film that discusses the origin of Justin’s unique status reminds us of the Tuskegee Airmen and what they suffered through. And the efforts to make cures out of Justin’s blood is very similar to all the research that has been done with the HeLa cells derived from Henrietta Lacks, whose life inspired the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. As detailed in the book, years ago, doctors found Lacks’ cells to be, inexplicably, “immortal”, able to stay alive when normal cells should have died. This led them to doing research on her husband and children without consent and although millions of dollars and new technology such as the Polio vaccine was developed from her cells, her family received no compensation and she was buried in an unmarked grave. And we still don’t know what made Lacks’ cells so special.
When stories like that are history, it makes this movie seem not that far removed from reality. And that’s the point. Suppose a person were born with such fantastic blood existed. What would people do? Would his life still be his own? Filmmaker Andrew Burroughs poses difficult questions and you are meant to continue thinking about them even after the credits are done rolling.
You can learn more about this film at www.AlgenyMovie.com. I leave you now with the film’s trailer.