The potential and power of genetic engineering looms over the first trailer released for the upcoming Netflix film Okja. Directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon-ho, the film’s star is a genetically modified animal who is friends with a young girl and is being hunted by a multinational company. This company’s business is genetic modification, and it’s headed by an icy-blond Tilda Swinton. While Okja is being pegged as science fiction, the fictional part of this film is actually pretty slim: The science that it would take to make such a creature is already in the works.
“I took nature and science,” Swinton’s character says in the trailer, clasping her hands. “And I synthesized.” She’s talking about the massive animal at the heart of the story.
We don’t know too much about it: Den of Geek reports that the animal was an experiment that is now growing rapidly, while the film’s description in Korean describes Okja as “somewhere between human and animal.” The new trailer only gives us a small look at the creature, whose shape appears to be a pig-hippo crossover with tender brown eyes.
That genetic modification would create a massive creature is not preposterous: Scientists have already used CRISPR technology to increase the size and mass of common animals. In 2015, biotech company AquaBounty Technologies revealed that it genetically modified Atlantic salmon by adding a growth hormone gene and a promoter of an antifreeze gene to the fish. This created much larger salmon that grow at a speed two times faster than average. Double-muscled beagles broke into the CRISPR scene in early 2016, when Chinese researchers from the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health announced they used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology to delete the myostatin gene from the normally small-muscled dogs. These beagles not only look like they’re on steroids — they’re stronger and can run faster than their unmodified peers.
Real-life animals that seem more suited for a fantasy novel aren’t out of the question either: In a 2016 essay in The American Journal of Bioethics, professors Hank Greely and R. Alta Charo argue that creating a dragon — yes, a dragon — wasn’t “impossible” with CRISPR technology. Sure, physics would prevent it from actually spitting out fire, but “a very large reptile that looks at least somewhat like the European or Asian dragon (perhaps with flappable if not flyable wings) could be someone’s target of opportunity,” they write.
And if Okja is indeed “somewhere between human and animal” — and this is a literal explanation, rather than an anthropomorphic sentiment — the science is almost there as well. At the end of January, scientists declared they had created pig-human chimeras. These embryos were less than 0.001 percent human and were created with the hope that they could one day allow us to grow human organs inside animals — not actual pig-humans. Still, it’s proof that what seemed like science fiction only decade prior can actually become a reality. Okja the film may seem like science fiction when it’s released this June, but it could very well be pegged as a documentary in the years to come.