Netflix’s Biohackers: Badass Experiments, Sloppy Revenge

A medical student enters a top German university on a secret mission to uncover a conspiracy linking a family tragedy to a high-profile biology professor. Complications escalate as it becomes clear that the professor will go to any length to protect her secret and her reputation.

The setting for Netflix’s Biohackers is awesome. Both the ultra-modern buildings and sunsoaked outdoor locations and being immersed in the thrilling world of biohackers. I was fascinated and excited by the overall vibe of everyone doing science experiments and going off-book to realize all kinds of outrageous dreamed-up wonders: A microchip embedded in your wrist so you can just scan into the subway without getting your wallet out. Plants with leaves that act as piano keys. Underwater pills that allow you to hold your breath for longer. And according to this article, A Synthetic Biologist’s Review of ‘Biohackers’ on Netflix the art and science of biohacking is done really well, portrayed with accuracy to the real thing.

The reviewer particularly appreciated that Biohackers depicts the many layers and stages to the process (comparing it to the unrealistic instant magic of shows like CSI). The article also shares some valuable insights about the ethics reflected in the show. They mention a specific moment where a DNA swab sample is taken from someone without consent and prior to providing them with any documentation to sign. Reading the article before I watched the show made me made me look at the whole situation in that episode differently. With that insight, it’s clear to see that there is no line the celeb-professor Lorenz wouldn’t cross to show her power and coerce even willing participants. There’s a constant undertone that fuels a desire to expose unethical laboratories; providing an undeniable clarity about the hierarchy in research facilities and the big names at the top who get away with anything. Some of this reminded me of the unforgettable Theranos case, as brilliantly told in the Audible Original by the Theranos whistleblower himself, Tyler Schultz: Thicker than Water. There are even scenes with professor Lorenz is wearing the black poloneck that Elizabeth Holmes wore in her attempt to emulate Steve Jobs.

The actual biohacking in Biohackers is badass and exciting, but the revenge plot… not so much. Each episode is comprised of a series of sloppy actions taken over a very short space of time, with what becomes clear is zero planning or sense of how the world works, and no indication that she truly grasps the gravity of the situation of exposing Lorenz. It’s also unsatifying. I say this not as a spoiler but as a serious warning: At the end all you get is a jumpscare and a lot of time to reflect on what you just went through… only for this girl to be an idiot. Nine episodes conclude with a blindingly bright awareness that Mia, Biohackers’ protagonist, wasted so many people’s time, and has made a lasting negative impact on every single person’s life in the process.

It was especially frustrating to watch Mia because I have seen Netflix’s Omniscient many times and could not help but compare the two: Omniscient’s Nina is patient and organised; always taking a moment to properly assess the situation and figure out the protocols she would need to circumvent. When Nina was doing something scary or seemingly reckless, we knew that it wasn’t, but we still held our breath. Mia Akerlund is hard to watch because it feels like she’s wasting every opportunity by fumbling her way through each turn, and being just plain reckless. It’s also confusing because by episode four she has more than enough to expose Lorenz both legally and in the press, without question, no matter who she takes the evidence to. And yet she keeps pushing harder, taking further risks with no reasonable outcome to weigh against.

She’s also very unlikable. And I’m okay with it! I’m all for more unlikable female characters; I strongly believe that we need them. Women should not have to cater to any of the characteristics we’ve been boxed into for so long. But it remains true; I did not like Mia. She uses people, manipulating them to her will with very little thought or effort put into being subtle about it. She is callous, but she also has no sense of where the line is. —She drugs one of her flatmates and steals their DNA with the same no-consent practices described above, which Mia has already personally experienced. She puts her friends into a situation where they’re believed to be terrorists and taken into custody so that she can escape, and then gives no thought to them at any point in the aftermath. Honestly, the only times I liked Mia were the brief moments that she looked like Britt Robertson (which actually happened a lot Lol). More than likability, though, it was hard to believe that someone who got through so many years with a fake identity and this long-term revenge plan could be so rushed and reckless that she would legit just do a sloppy job and get angry when confronted or questioned about any aspect of it.

In terms of the supporting cast, literally only two of the recurring characters are not white (or at least white-passing). As is to be expected, at some point in the show, each of them face a decision on how they’ll react to and participate in everything Mia is up to. There is a sense of inevitability that the majority of them will act in support of her, no questions asked, influenced some aspect about Mia they find captivating. For her “friends” (I use this term loosely because any sincerity and social bonding is completely one-way and self-motivated) it seems their drive is simply common human decency and the unwritten code that you help your flat-mates when they need it. At no point does she reciprocate. It’s never even considered. We follow the joyful escapades of her flat-mates lives, the responsibilities of staff at Lorenz’s lab, and visit the competitive underworld of biohacking renegades. Mia is surrounded by literal geniuses, each with their own moral code and motivations, all of which she is willing to exploit and take advantage of. The only person she doesn’t seem okay with manipulating is Chen Li, a flat-mate with whom she is genuinely amused and charmed by; treating her with such respect and kindness towards her that it feels out of place in the show.

The dynamic between Mia’s love interests provides an interesting arc, and it’s introduced in a really cool way right from the opening scene. One of the most delightful and thrilling moments happens because of this universal modern truth: That your best friends know your gmail and iCloud passwords. A level of deeply authentic ‘this is how millennials use the internet’ and how that it filters into every aspect in their lives that I have never seen before!!! So real and honestly breathtaking to see myself represented on screen in this way.

The chemistry between Jasper and Mia is so sparkly and undeniable that I would believe they’re dating irl. It’s really quite special to see. And oh what sights we are gifted with! Biohackers gives us GLORIOUSLY cinematic shots of him, and super sweet tiny moments between the couple that there would be entire tumblr accounts about if them was still a thing. My heart ACHES that it isn’t. On a questionable note, though, I worry that the changes he goes through as the episodes and drama progresses are used to foreshadow his role in the unraveling. —Particularly because the fact that he has Huntington’s disease becomes his defining characteristic, using a symptom of the disease (in this case, sudden, drastic personality changes) as a catalyst feels like a cruel and unnecessary stigma to impose upon people with the disease. In reality, it’s easy to see how someone anyone in Jasper’s position could react that way, terminal illness symptoms or not.

Then there is Nik: A curly-haired, comic book reading, cabin in the woods living, coffee on a stove making boy who knows more and sees more and seems to have an innate insight and wisdom that is underestimated. It was really clever and exciting to know from the opening scene that their relationship changes somehow, and so much fun to watch it play out.

Also fun: The soundtrack is so lekker! My fave song is this one, which I listened to almost exclusively and on repeat since I heard it in the episode. Mostly notable for me, was that Biohackers is filmed in suuuuch pretty ways. There are now so many places I’d wanna visit in Germany entirely based on scenes where this was filmed. I reallllly enjoyed the cinematography, and was impressed to discover that Biohackers’ Christian Ditter is the German director, producer and screenwriter best known for Love, Rosie, and the Netflix series Girlboss —both of which I adore for their striking visuals and women-centred stories.

Content warnings. There are a lot so I’m numbering them: 1. A main character battles with the up and downs (and a relapse in his treatment) of Huntingdon’s disease. 2. Episodes two and three have blood and grime, some self-surgery scenes. 3. There are flashbacks to a fatal car crash. 4. The bigger picture behind Lorenz’s experimentation is to rid the world babies born with ‘undesirable’ genetic diseases, an attempt to prevent a child being with illnesses, by way of genetically modifying during the IVF process. This obviously brings up feelings of ‘what constitutes an undesirable genetic trait and who makes that decision, both medically and morally. Related to this, is 5. At some point, Lorenz says to Mia “You’re blond, blue eyes, almost perfect.” and it’s hard not to feel the shudder that comes with hearing that in a story set in Germany, given their history. 6. In terms of pandemic vibes, there is only brief mention to potentially triggering things that closely resemble our stressful reality right now. 7. Most disturbing to me was the beginning of the final episode, when Mia somewhat frantically but entirely coherently shares information of the antidote that will cure the passengers of their sudden exposure to the fatal virus, urgently requesting it be brought into the contained area. The emergency health-worker lies to placate her, and immediately places her under a psychotic hold. They lock her up inside the train carriage. It’s horrible and was triggering panicking for me. 8. Hospital trauma, with childhood flashbacks to testing. 9. The Jumpscare moment in the final episode at the time stamp just before there’s 9:10 left to watch. 10. Kidnapping. 11. Murder of a witness to a crime. 12. The above mentioned non consensual taking DNA swabs for genetic analysis. 12. Mia drugs her flat-mate to incapacitate and impair her memory.

Related:

Clique is a brilliant British show about a group of women studying at a prestigious university and fighting for the top position in a world of coveted, questionable, confidential work with a renowned professor. The complicated, highly motivated characters provide a captivating look into the reality behind high-powered, untouchable men: the environments that breed ruthlessly competitive women, the underbelly of exploitative academic and corporate worlds, the dangers of being a woman on campus with society’s elite and the inescapable camaraderie that violent truth fosters. Every theme discussed and each character’s unraveling is told in a way that feels fresh and provoking, unlike any other show I’ve watched before or since. There are two seasons and I highly recommend them both.

Portuguese Netflix show, Omniscient, follows Nina as her life suddenly and sharply shifts from one of excitement and motivation for success at her prestigious internship turns; and becomes a fierce determination to uncover the mystery of her dad’s death in a society where murder should not be be possible. —A city where citizens are under personal surveillance at all times, with futuristic micro-drone technology that’s programmed to notice any crimes and suspicious motives. The results of this monitoring has converted the entire judicial system to an ‘unbiased’ digital system. Omniscient brilliantly conveys the inescapable power of corporates and government, sibling dynamics in response to grief, the work of innovative scientists (of which Nina is one) and a multi-faceted look into the moral and social impact of the ‘safer’ city. It’s visually stunning, in everything from its limited colour palette to its strategic-but-subtle use of Nina’s outfits for each new step of her plan. That she is smart and driven and impressive, shines through in the high-tech, fast-paced, futuristic murder-mystery she finds herself entangled in. I’ve watched it like four times and it never stops being excellent. I could not recommend Omniscient enough.

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