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Straight To Hell Returns

Post-Repo Man cult favorite returns with improved special effects —John Adams (review...)

Alex Cox returns... Straight to Hell

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“There’s strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold...”
— Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

The poet Robert Service knew a thing or two about men who run off to the Arctic to get rich quick. He would have immediately recognized the Siberian hunters of mammoths seen in Genesis 2.0 as kindred spirits to his own gold-rush boys of the Klondike. Only today it is not gold that these arctic fortune hunters are after but fossil ivory from long-gone mammoths... Ivory appropriately called, “white gold.” Highly prized as the only legal source for the international ivory trade, mammoth tusks can make a poor Siberian relatively wealthy overnight.

Genesis 2.0, directed by Christian Frei and co-directed by Maxim Arbugaev, is now out on DVD from Icarus Films and gives us a glimpse into the lives of Siberian Mammoth hunters and a lot more.

Keep in mind the last mammoths died in isolated Arctic obscurity around the time the pyramids of Egypt were being assembled and the mammoths being hunted in Genesis 2.0 are much older than that, more on the order of 40,000 years ago. The valuable tusks of these extinct hairy cousins of elephants are preserved in the perpetual ice box of northern Siberia. All you have to do to become a mammoth hunter is go to one of the most remote, least habitable places on Earth and start probing the permafrost during the few weeks of summer when the ground is exposed. You can expect to walk and probe a lot and you will run out of food. If summer ends early, you may freeze. You will also have to keep an eye out for random polar bears. Technically, the polar bear does not eat in the summer but with global warming and all, polar bears are not getting enough to eat out on the winter ice pack and, well, a bear has to adapt.

Mammoth tusks are not the only thing the permafrost preserves and in rare instances, parts or all of a frozen mammoth can be found. It is at this point that Genesis 2.0 really gets going and a second cast of characters are introduced. These are also men who are obsessed in a hunt, but in this case the search for a living cell from a frozen mammoth. With that live cell, they hope a mammoth clone can be created and mammoths could rise Lazarus-like from their icy grave and walk the Earth once more. What could go wrong here?

Awkwardly for the film’s continuity, a third group of obsessed hunters also appear in Genesis 2.0. This time it is the men and women who are engineering genetics. We get a brief glimpse into the world of bioengineering where we see an ever-expanding army of young geneticists gathering in Boston to have some sort of yearly college-level competition/science project throw down. We’re not exactly sure how the completion is judged but all the young people are filled with flashing-eyed enthusiasm for hacking biology. Again, what could go wrong here?

For the bioengineers, the frozen mammoths are of interest because of their DNA, which is still viable. (And indeed, the gene sequencing of mammoths has already happened, although that’s not mentioned in Genesis 2.0.) And from that information it could be theoretically possible to create a “cold resistant” elephant. In other words, a mammoth reborn. Again, what could go wrong here?

At this point in the film, the viewer is left juggling three storylines loosely linked by the common denominator of prehistoric mammoths. Christian Frei directed the cloning and gene splicing parts and Maxim Arbugaev the mammoth hunters. All three are pretty good stories, but do all three make for one good documentary? Maybe not. But shout out to Frei for giving new filmmaker Arbugaev an opportunity to show his work.

Most compelling to me was the story of the mammoth hunters themselves. In this documentary within a documentary, co-director Maxim Arbugaev beautifully composes a portrait of one Siberian crew’s summer on the islands of Novosibirsk (New Siberia). Men who are (to again quote Service) “Half dead things in a stark dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold.”

These are the guys who do all of the heavy lifting and take the biggest chances in the ivory marketplace only to get the smallest share of the market value of the ivory tusks. This story alone is reason enough to see Genesis 2.0.

The examples of unfairness and folly of the Free Market threads its way through all three narratives. In the cloning section we meet Hwang Woo Sun, a onetime disgraced biologist who’s made a comeback of sorts cloning dogs for the rich. Did Fido kick the bucket? No problem, just pony up $10,000 and get a new copy. Two, actually. (Is the second a backup/insurance policy?) The cost of a cloned dog is more than any mammoth hunter could reasonably expect to earn in a whole summer’s moiling for white gold.

Perhaps even more sinister is the Big Bio of the company BGI and the China National Gene Bank, which seems free of any ethical second thoughts about their turning genetics into a business and further commodifying life.

The Chinese continue to have bad optics when they show up as the biggest buyers of the mammoth ivory. Admittedly, the mammoth hunters are enticed to do what they do by the money the Chinese are paying for the fossils ivory but that money is only a fraction of what the final value of the ivory will be. We see entire mammoth tusks carved into intricate kitschy knickknacks that can be worth millions. These things are 200-pound dust-catching paperweights that put a new spin on the old term “white elephant.”

You are going to be seeing and hearing more and more about the Siberia Arctic as global warming thaws its permafrost. Not only mammoth ivory but megatons of CO2, methane, and nitrogen are going to appear to dramatically change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. It would be interesting to compare the amount of money spent on buying mammoth ivory to that spent on Arctic climate/permafrost research. While permafrost science may be a footnote to the story of ancient mammoths, perhaps mammoths should be the footnote to the bigger story of the permafrost thawing.