The Wildest Sci-fi Movie On Netflix Reveals a Real-Life Ethical Dilemma
The twist no one saw coming ...
As Cassius Green climbs the corporate ladder, nothing can prepare him for what he’ll find at the top.
Green, the main protagonist in director Boots Riley’s satirical debut Sorry to Bother You, works as a telemarketer at the fictional company RegalView. But as time goes on, he finds himself rising through the ranks and being promoted to the prestigious role of “power caller.”
It’s when he begins working with a dubious client called WorryFree that the troubles begin to escalate.
Warning! Spoilers ahead for Sorry to Bother You.
Green secures an invitation to a lavish, exclusive party thrown by WorryFree CEO Steve Lift. But during the celebration at Lift’s mansion, Green witnesses the disturbing lengths to which the CEO will go to expand his already exorbitant wealth.
In the final act of the film, things take a demented turn. Green sneaks away for a brief trip to the bathroom in Lift’s basement, and comes face-to-face with a horrifying beast that appears to be half-human and half-horse.
These are the equisapiens — muscular, towering, two-legged individuals with snouts like their equine cousins. They carry themselves with a hulking, human-like stature and speak perfect English. Green even hears them cry out for help during that first encounter.
Lift is eager to reveal that these creatures are his own creation. The equisapiens, as Green is told, will replace human laborers, ushering in a new workforce that is stronger, more obedient, and less whiny. And to make things even more terrifying, he wants Green to become an equisapien himself, and lead the herd.
In the dystopian landscape of Sorry to Bother You, anything seems possible — even equisapiens. While it wouldn’t be possible to create such a creature in real life, the film does provoke important ethical questions that surround real, emerging technologies.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
What exactly are the equisapiens?
In Green’s words, “half-human, half-horse f**king things.” It might be tempting to call equisapiens a hybrid species, as the name suggests that they’re part Equus and part Homo sapien. But that wouldn’t be accurate in scientific terms.
Hybrid species can only be created when sperm from one species combines with an egg from another species. Real-life ligers (a cross between a lion and a tiger) and narlugas (a cross between a beluga and a narwhal) are considered hybrids because their parents each came from different species.
But as explained in the surreal, stop-motion presentation that Lift shows Green in Sorry to Bother You, equisapiens come to life when an adult human snorts a substance called the fusing catalyst. This alters their physical form to make them more horse-like.
“We realize that human labor has its limitations,” the nameless claymation narrator shares in Lift’s presentation. “And so our scientists have discovered a way, a chemical change, to make humans stronger, more obedient, more durable, and therefore more efficient and profitable.”
If they were real, equisapiens would probably be classified as genetically modified humans, bioethicist Alan Regenberg tells Inverse. He works at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and specializes in areas like emerging biotechnologies and gene editing.
“It's certainly not possible now to ingest a drug that can alter your body to take on characteristics of a different animal as happens in Sorry to Bother You,” Regenberg says.
But gene editing and modification do exist in real life. However, it’s used a lot differently than in the film — and also doesn’t involve snorting a cocaine-like substance off a plate.
Realities of gene modification
Humans have been messing with the genetic makeup of plants and animals for a long time. Some of that has been through selective breeding, but more modern tools like viral vector gene therapy and CRISPR editing create an opportunity to be more precise about which genes are altered.
Those modifications don’t transform every part of a plant or animal, though. For example, the first genetically modified food to hit grocery store shelves was a tomato less prone to rotting than other varieties. It was otherwise identical to its non-modified counterparts.
Gene modification in humans takes a similarly targeted approach. Researchers are testing therapies to edit immune cells so that they can better fight cancer or treat genetic conditions like muscular dystrophy. It doesn’t alter the entire body, but makes a small change in the DNA to target a specific function.
So the likelihood that we’d have a medication that can instantaneously transform an adult human into one with animal-like characteristics? Not a chance.
“None of the available techniques can do anything remotely similar to turning you into an equisapien, let alone allowing you to return to your original form,” Regenberg says. “Even if it ever became possible, it would remain deeply ethically problematic.”
Ethics of equisapiens
Creating creatures with human and animal DNA toes an ethical line in science today. For example, some researchers are creating interspecies chimeras, living things that are comprised of cells from two different zygotes (fertilized eggs) of different species.
In 2021, a group of scientists in China and the U.S. published the results of an experiment where they successfully created chimeric embryos made of cells from both humans and monkeys. The embryos only survived 19 days.
But the end goal of chimera research is not to make mutant species like equisapiens, but rather to help solve medical problems. In the human-monkey embryo study, the researchers argued that it could help better understand how diseases form in the human body.
Still, this poses questions about the sentience or classification of such beings, for instance: When is something with human DNA considered human?
If scientists were ever going to create something like an equisapien, they’d be posed with some serious ethical dillemmas.
Two of the big questions they’d have to answer, according to Regenberg, are:
- How could we ensure that such a creature, once created, wouldn't suffer in a way that was unacceptable?
- How should we think about their moral status?
It seems unlikely, by way of the film, that WorryFree CEO Lift cares about either of these questions when envisioning his future equisapien workforce. While the creatures may be more satirical symbolism than serious science, they do shine a light on some of the ethical questions provoked by new technologies.
Sorry to Bother You leaves Netflix on February 28.