Penn’s Bioethics Film Festival celebrates 200th anniversary of ‘Frankenstein’

Third annual Bioethics Film Festival (photo provided)

The third annual Bioethics Film Festival at the University of Pennsylvania runs Tuesday through Thursday this week. (photo provided)

The University of Pennsylvania kicks off its third annual Bioethics Film Festival Tuesday night. This year’s theme is “Frankenstein” in honor of the novel’s 200th anniversary.

In 1818, Mary Shelley published her novel about an ambitious scientist and his creation, which would become a cautionary tale for what humans do with scientific innovation for the next two centuries.

The book’s themes ring true in modern scientific debates, such as the one surrounding the controversial gene editing technology, CRISPR,  said Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics at Penn and organizer of the film festival.

“We have very high hopes that technologies like CRISPR will actually help us to address some terrible human afflictions,” said Moreno. “While at the same time, we worry that these hopes could be exploited by unscrupulous people, or that the consequences could be really terrible and set science back.”

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From “Transformers” to “Blade Runner,” the echoes of questions about how far is too far in scientific development show up in film of every generation, Moreno said. That makes it worth talking about on an academic level.

“If there’s an ivory tower, there’s a movie theater in the tower with a bunch of professors talking about the movie,” he said.

If “Frankenstein” offers a cautionary tale on the perils of innovation, Moreno said the life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking offers the antidote.

“He was seen as the good scientist — the hero,” Moreno said. “Yet he also has this interesting relationship to technology, right? He was in a wheelchair. He had a mechanical, electronic voice. It shows that you can be a scientist and incorporate technology in a positive way — a way that enlarges the human imagination without exploiting nature.”

All film screenings are free and open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion led by scholars. The festival is scheduled to begin Tuesday night at the International House with “Bride of Frankenstein.” Thursday is “Blade Runner,” and Friday is “Young Frankenstein” (rescheduled from Wednesday, due to inclement weather).

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