The Cinematic Life of the Gene

Jackie Stacey,
The Cinematic Life of the Gene.
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0822345077
US$23.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

Jackie Stacey’s book forms part of a new wave of cinema criticism which investigates the representation of medical imaging technology and scientific discourse in popular and avant-garde production. It is a fascinating area of research, regularly advanced by Stacey whose other works on the subject to date include Teratologies: A Cultural Study of Cancer (1997) and a co-edited anthology with Sara Ahmed entitled Thinking Through the Skin (2001). In this latest work, Stacey offers profound and challenging insights into the cultural attitudes toward the science of genetics and cloning. Her work represents a third and important party in the contemporary scrutiny of science, one completely separate from both religious and scientific agents.

The Cinematic Life of the Gene opens with a chapter critiquing the perceived horrors of cloning. Stacey centres her critique on Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the topic – notably his spectacular association of cloning with a death drive. This opening chapter, “The hell of the same”, deeply considers the philosophy of cloning. Stacey unpacks the manner in which Baudrillard regards cloning as a ‘fatal strategy’ because, although it may represent the desire for immortality, its reproductive strategy represents a return to the structure of bacteria – the immortal sameness from which we evolved. Stacey suggests, furthermore, that cloning is like cancer, an “undifferentiated cell proliferation [which] extends into undifferentiated imitation of the human race” (p. 28).

After this opening philosophical intrigue, Stacey proceeds to a thorough and insightful analysis of two science fiction films which relate directly to the philosophical horrors of cloning, Alien Resurrection (USA 1997) and Species (USA 1995). Stacey critiques the films’ representations of cloning through the application of gender theory, including their imagery of the so-called ‘perfect woman’. Stacey aligns medicine’s undying quest for increased visibility with an over-exposure of the female body, commenting on the anxieties of “biological transparency and authenticity of the body alongside the cinema’s concern with its own visualizing and fictionalizing powers” (p. 89).

Stacey combines a variety of cultural theories, including the titillating suggestion that cloning may in fact represent true psychosis because, when “confronted with our biological double, we find we are literally beside ourselves” (p. 99). The book provides a diverse approach to cloning and genetic science through the application of psychoanalysis, gender studies and philosophy. This thorough unpacking allows for an insightful investigation into how such science can translate into cinematic visions of the human body.
What is lacking, however, is an analysis of films outside the science fiction genre. Although, in the final chapter, Stacey does provide an absorbing theoretical analysis of the avant-garde film Genetic Admiration(Canada 2005) – which directly critiques the subject of medical imaging and the body – the book lacks insight into how the new technology of cloning potentially penetrates other forms of cinema and culture. Here I apply Stacey’s own research premise that “cosmopolitan culture should not be seen as a self-evident field of critical enquiry nor be assumed already to exist in the world as an object that can simply be found and scrutinised. Instead, we might examine the cosmopolitan subject as the product of national and transnational cultural fears and desires” (Stacey, website

In this light, Stacey’s analysis of science fiction films such as Gattaca (USA 1997), Alien ResurrectionSpecies and Teknolust (USA/Germany/UK 2002) relates too directly to cloning. I am left wondering where else the figure of the clone might haunt our cinematic imaginary. How could the introduction of cloning, genetic science and DNA logic transform the themes and stories of modern cinemas – do filmmakers seek to escape the uncanny, or is it deliberately reproduced to incite fear? Could films like Demolition Man (USA 1993), Mars Attacks! (USA 1996), or perhaps Village of the Damned (USA 1995) further reveal the desires and fears produced by cloning technology? That the book leaves me wondering how scientific discoveries affect modern cinema suggests a need for further research into the phenomenon. Much work has already been done by other academics on the subject of the body and its multiple images, including the as-yet-untranslated volume by Nicole Brenez, De la Figure en Général et du Corps en Particulier: L’Invention Figurative au Cinéma (1998), as well as Barbara Duden’s Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn (1993) and Lisa Cartwright’s Screening the Body: Tracing the Visual Cultures of Biomedicine  (1995). Stacey hints at the potential to uncover greater truths through the image of the clone, concluding the second chapter with the suggestive sentence, “this world which promises transparency may end up simply reflecting back to us an illusory image of ourselves which hides a deeper secret” (p. 176). Those deeper secrets remain yet to be revealed, but Stacey’s book provides a wonderful starting-point.

Lauren Bliss,
Monash University, Australia.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Lauren Bliss

About the Author

Lauren Bliss

Lauren Bliss is a PhD candidate, researching the figure of the pregnant body in the cinema. She has both creative and academic essays published for BAFICI press, Metro magazine and Screening the Past.View all posts by Lauren Bliss →