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Biology in the Movies

Sarah Bottorff
Technical Support Specialist, Live Materials

May/June 2016

Want to help students recognize and become critical viewers of science in popular culture?

Films introduce intriguing ideas and provocative viewpoints about the role of science in life and society, and as such, they make great teaching tools. By allowing your students to connect with science through a fictional story, you can facilitate excellent learning opportunities.

We’ve chosen 4 films from among staff favorites. Each suggestion includes a brief synopsis as well as some talking points for in-class discussions or student assignments.

Be sure to check and follow your district policies regarding the use of ancillary materials.

Gattaca (1997)

Gattaca portrays a futuristic society in which DNA technologies are used in family planning to screen potential embryos for desired and undesired traits. The main character, whose genetic traits have been deemed inferior, must compete with the upper tiers of his society to realize his dream of traveling into space.


Scientists have identified nearly 1,000 genetic diseases and found genetic predispositions for a variety of conditions. Despite our growing body of knowledge about the human genome, it remains unclear whether or not personality traits such as sense of humor and intelligence have any sort of genetic base. What kind of information would you, as a researcher, want to collect to determine if such a link exists?

Complete background research on the eugenics movement of the 19th century. Compare and contrast ideas from the movement with the culture of the society presented in the film. Are there any common themes?

Born Free (1966)

Based on the book of the same name, Born Free is the story of Joy Adamson and her husband George, who together play surrogate parents to a trio of orphaned lion cubs. When George is called for a transfer, two of the cubs are sent to live at a zoo. Having bonded with Elsa, the smallest of the three cubs, Joy takes on the task of teaching her to hunt and live as a wild lioness.


Complete background research about the threats facing African lions today. Currently, what are the biggest threats to their survival? Does the film address any of them?

Discuss the techniques Joy and George use to teach Elsa the skills she will need to live as a wild lioness. How are these similar to some of the domestic animal training techniques you may be familiar with?

Ice Age (2002)

Set during an undisclosed prehistoric period, Ice Age follows a wooly mammoth, a sloth, and a saber-tooth cat on a mission to return a human child to its family.


The animals depicted in the film show several adaptations that help them survive. Describe three of these adaptations, and explain how they might change over several generations after the ice age sets in.

Complete background research on a mass extinction event that occurred during Earth’s natural history. How could extinction promote speciation (the emergence of new organisms) in the fossil record?

Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)

Based on a true story, Lorenzo’s Oil follows the progression of the genetic disease adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) in a 5-year-old boy named Lorenzo Odone. Lorenzo’s diagnosis and grim prognosis inspires his parents to seek information and encourage collaboration among members of the medical community. This eventually leads to the development of therapeutic dietary oils to slow the progression of the disease.


ALD follows which type of genetic inheritance pattern? Briefly explain how Lorenzo inherited ALD.

The principal of competitive inhibition is used frequently throughout the film. Complete background research on other treatments that use this principal to slow or reverse the progression of disease. In your response, explain the principal of competitive inhibition as it applies to the treatment you have chosen.

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