Directed by Cody Sheehy, Make People Better tells the story of Dr. He Jiankui, a Chinese geneticist who made waves by producing the world’s first genetically-edited babies in 2018. Although Dr. He’s work was feted at first by the Chinese government, the ensuing pandemonium over the ethical implications of his work quickly led to his disappearance. As the scientific community grapples with his boundary-breaking work, so too must they ask themselves whether or not there is a cost to their desire to make people better.
Anchored by testimonies from a whistleblower, multiple scientists and even Dr. He himself, Make People Betteris a gripping exploration of the boundaries of scientific achievements and the ethical questions that they create in the process. Under a veil of intrigue, Sheehy uses the conspiracy surrounding Dr. He’s disappearance to drive the narrative. In doing so, Better maintains the drama of a suspense thriller without ever sacrificing the most essential information. As geneticists unlock the secrets of the human genome, so too do they discover the seemingly limitless possibilities of preventing disease before it strikes.
Even so, the most challenging questions within the film remains one of moral responsibility. Faced with the opportunity to eliminate disease and improve the human experience, Better asks whether or not we have truly considered the ethical questions involved in doing so.
Are we leaning towards the next level of human evolution? Or are we simply playing God by altering the natural world?
In this film, both arguments seem to be true. Delving into the murky moral waters, Better frequently takes a more balanced approach by acknowledging the challenges of leaning into the future. Without scientific advancement through genetic research, the human race may be passing up opportunities to bring much needed help to the global population. For example, because of their willingness to weather the storms of controversy, scientific developments through genetic research such as IVF now find themselves widely accepted. (As the film argues, ‘just because something is controversial, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad.’)
At the same time, adapting the genome in this way almost feels as though we are playing with nature. Though the scientific community remains committed to achieving their scientific dreams, there is almost a sense of recklessness in their endeavors. In the same way that Dr. He pushed forward with his own research, many in the community work tirelessly to achieve without considering whether or not they should move forward. For every scientific victory, so too can that work be used for more nefarious purposes.
Exciting and sharply executed, Make People Better is a gripping thriller of one man’s achievement and the forces that work against him out of fear. Conversely, Sheehy’s film also holds a humility towards human life that counterbalances the drive for scientific and technological advancement.
After all, just because we can make people better, it doesn’t always mean we should.
Make People Better is now playing at HotDocs ’22. For screening information, click here.