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Film Review: The Bourne Legacy

10 September 2012
Appeared in BioNews 672

The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy

The Bourne Legacy sees a return of the Bourne franchise, only this time without its eponymous hero, but rather a whole new breed of biologically enhanced undercover CIA agents. These new agents, in addition to going through the intense physical training that we know well from the previous Bourne films, are experimental subjects in a secret medical program. A leak of this new program is deemed so catastrophic that the CIA decides to shut it down immediately - silencing both the agents and the scientists behind it.

Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is the only agent to survive this shut down, whilst Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is similarly lucky in surviving a mass shooting at the lab where she works for the medical program. Cross seeks out Shearing after realising what is happening and the two go on the run from an increasingly desperate CIA operation headed by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).

So, what of this biological enhancement? What, if any, science is it based on? To begin we know only that the agents have to take two pills - one blue, one green – and collect blood samples to send back to the lab. These pills, rather irritatingly, are continually referred to as 'chems' – surely 'meds' would be more apt? However, we are none the wiser as to what is going on, beyond the regular medical tests and blood samples that the agents have to provide.

It is only after Cross catches up with Dr Shearing that we get an explanation. Dr Shearing is a virologist, and the scientists are using viruses to transfer new DNA into Cross to both physically and mentally enhance him, hence the two pills – one for brains, one for brawn. The physiology behind the enhancements seems fairly shaky (even mitochondria get a mention here) and it is probably unnecessary for the film to delve this deep. However, the viral technology is not as far-fetched as it might sound. The use of viruses to insert DNA, often termed gene therapy, is an active area of research. The technology seeks to hijack the natural property of viruses, namely that of injecting their DNA into a host cell, to transfer new genes into human cells.

This growing area of research focuses on the potential to cure genetic conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, through the insertion of a working copy of the required gene. Progress is such that concerns have already been voiced, during the Olympics, of using this technology for the 'genetic doping' of future athletes. The Bourne Legacy takes this a step further by using the technology to genetically upgrade their undercover agents.

When it finally arrived, I was surprised Dr Shearing's explanation of the science behind the medical program was so detailed. It is refreshing that some of what was alluded to is actually based on fact. We are told fairly accurately that there are two major problems with using viruses for gene therapy - getting the virus into the right cells and then making sure the change induced by the virus lasts.

Predictably for Hollywood we get some fanciful hand waving to overcome these problems. An experiment gone wrong in the 1980s gave researchers the 'map' they needed to target viruses to all the different cells in the body. At least this stands up as a concept, if not being hugely farfetched. The explanation for getting the viral changes to persist however is entirely unsatisfactory and just doesn't stack up. We are told that the pills only produce a temporary effect and that to 'lock in' the enhancement, Cross needs to be infected by live virus and 'viral out'. The whole premise behind the technology is based on using live virus, and so the idea of temporary enhancement being offered by a chemical pill – as the name 'chems' alludes to – doesn't make sense.

This does however provide a good reason for our two heroes to go across the globe in search of this live virus. Unsurprisingly, the live virus is shown to have only minor side effects. A single night of fever and Cross is back to full health and ready to fight off all that the CIA can throw at him.

As far as the movie goes, it is a little light on action compared to the other Bourne movies, but the feel and plot tread a familiar route. Continual references to the absent Jason Bourne in an attempt to link the films together seem misplaced. As a result I spent a fair amount of time trying to remember what happened in those films and if it was relevant to this one, which it isn't. If you hadn't seen the previous ones, the references serve only to confuse and give a sense that you are missing out on something important, which you aren't.

An abrupt ending is somewhat unsatisfactory, leaving many questions unanswered. But it is nice to see that the science crucial to the plot is not pure fantasy and gets an almost positive spin – gene therapy using viruses could lead to medical benefits (although maybe not to create superhuman spies).

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