'Genesis 2.0': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The woolly mammoth tusk is just the tip of the iceberg in this haunting excavation.

A globe-spanning documentary explores the front lines of genetic science and the efforts to realize an Arctic spin on 'Jurassic Park.'

Genesis 2.0 is a double-stranded helix of a real-life thriller, chilling and unforgettable. An inquiry into the brave new world of "synthetic biology," it moves between two filmmakers in very different locations. Their twinned subjects, whose connections are gradually revealed, are past and future, superstition and logic, a hunter and his scientist brother.

At the center of the heady mix is the woolly mammoth, a long-extinct species that key figures in the exquisitely crafted documentary are determined to revive. Those figures speak, without irony or warning, of the power to design bodies and perfect God's work. They view such experimental hybrid creatures as the geep (goat meets sheep) as exciting steps in that direction.

Swiss director Christian Frei (War Photographer) uses a keen and measured observational style to peer into the conference halls and cutting-edge laboratories where DNA sequencing, genomes and cloning are the rallying cry and the business at hand. He lets his subjects' words hang in the air, whether their aims are benign (Save the bee!) or fuel for an episode of Black Mirror. If internet companies' mining of your personal deets is worrisome, consider one lab executive's proud declaration that the next level of big data is life itself.

While exploring the world of white coats, sterile interiors and revolutionary breakthroughs, Frei's film also burrows into the uninhabited tundra of the New Siberian Islands, a remote archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. There his co-director, Maxim Arbugaev, a young native of the Siberian republic of Yakutia (land of the social-media-famous frozen eyelashes), is spending a hunting season with other Siberian men. Their quarry isn't living creatures but the enormous tusks of the prehistoric woolly mammoth, which have been rising to the surface as what was once permafrost succumbs to a climate-change thaw.

With a tusk of significant heft and serious quality, the hunters could see a payday in the tens of thousands of dollars. Spira Sleptsov, a young father and anxious first-time tusk hunter, has made the trek in hope of settling his debts. It isn't until very late in the film that the destination for the tusks — the Chinese luxury market in carved ivory — is disclosed, along with the reminder that the truly big money never filters down to the people doing the hard, life-risking work.

While the hunters maintain their simple machines, a precious satellite phone and one or two digital devices in their rudimentary base camp, Frei explores the Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in Boston. He visits hotshot geneticist George Church at Harvard Medical School and travels to the China National GeneBank and the glossy biotech operation in Seoul where Westerners shell out $100,000 for clones of their deceased dogs.

There's more than a touch of Werner Herzog in the doc's man-over-nature theme, but also in the voiceover narration by Arbugaev and Frei as they write dispatches to each other. Their voices are weary, their words sincere, and Frei's carries a hint of Herzogian incredulity. In contrast, the excerpts of Yakut epic poems read by Ilyana S. Pavlova are weighted with prophesy and alarm.

According to Yakut tradition, it's taboo to touch the remains of the mammoths. Elders advise against digging into the earth without a real need; intricately carved decorations probably wouldn't qualify. But after a whole mammoth carcass is discovered, complete with still-fluid blood, all bets are off when it comes to observing tradition. Cue the jackhammers.

With elegance and poignancy, the score by Max Richter and Edward Artemyev sounds its own alarms, a stirring match for the striking camerawork by a number of cinematographers. And through the divergent paths of two Yakutian brothers, the film throws into question the simplistic notion of mercenary selfishness versus the purity of science.

Peter Grigoriev is a professional tusk hunter; Semyon Grigoriev is a paleontologist who heads the Mammoth Museum in the Siberian city of Yakutsk. Semyon delivers a TED Talk, exhilarated about the potential uses of DNA from the extraordinarily well preserved mammoth that he helped to excavate from the warming Arctic soil. Peter, speaking with Arbugaev on the human drive to hunt and acquire, says quietly, "We'll see how long we can get away with this."


Production companies: Christian Frei Filmproductions in association with Swiss National Televison and ZDF/Arte
Director: Christian Frei
Codirector: Maxim Arbugaev
Producers: Christian Frei, Maxim Arbugaev
Directors of photography: Maxim Arbugaev, Peter Indergand
Additional cinematographer, New Siberian Islands: Vladimir Egorov
Editors: Thomas Bachmann, Christian Frei
Composers: Max Richter, Edward Artemyev
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Sales: Rise and Shine, Berlin

In English, Russian, Yakut, Korean and Chinese
113 minutes