WARNING: This article deals with spoilers for the ending of No Time to Die. Only proceed if you do not mind being spoiled.
Unless it deals with space, movie science is, generally speaking, pathetically bad. Considering filmmakers often want NASA approval in order to use their logo and resources, they often get more of a say in how their work is depicted cinematically—and that’s not to say that movie space science is always accurate, not by a mile (hello, Armageddon), it just gets some TLC a little bit more often.
To be clear, I am not complaining about creative license—that is, when movies fudge the rules of science for narrative reasons, like speeding up or simplifying various processes in the name of pacing. I am talking about moments like in Project Power, when the film goes out of its way to explain the origins of HeLa cells, which was a pleasant surprise until the explanation takes a confoundingly wrong turn: The cell line came from a biopsy performed on cancer patient Henrietta Lacks (yes), but from her non-cancerous cells (absolutely not, go directly to jail, do not collect $200). The literal reason HeLa cells are immortal is that they are cancer cells—they grow and multiply like crazy. The majority of immortalized cell lines are from cancer cells, which is one of the shortcomings in using them for research. They’re a good start to investigate various processes, but findings might not always reflect how these processes work in non-cancerous cells.
There is no narrative reason for this sort of mistake, it’s just laziness. These answers are Googleable, and the frequency with which they occur in films that require so much blood, sweat, and tears from so many people to make it to screen boggles the mind. Films take years and millions of dollars to make, and no one stops somewhere along the way to ask, “Hey, why don’t we check to make sure we’re not spewing absolute nonsense?”
While this question sometimes keeps me awake at night, at this point my usual reaction to bad movie science would be best summarized as “disappointed, but not surprised.” I have grown numb.
Or at least, I thought I had. And then I saw No Time to Die, which has a scientific blunder so problematic it’s actually offensive—and all the more concerning because science education is in such a terrible place, I fear that many viewers do not even realize that it is an error.
Now, the Project Heracles weapon is generally questionable in terms of the underlying science, but this is a Bond movie, I would expect nothing less. I am not Neil deGrasse Tyson here to scold a movie for making things flip and/or explode when physics says they shouldn’t and kill joy. This is a film series that swaps in actors like spare car parts, went on for 46 years before it started caring about continuity, and has featured characters named Xenia Onatopp and Shady Tree. Verisimilitude has never been the goal here, and that’s totally fine.
The issue I have with the bad science of No Time To Die comes from one particular scene late in the film, where scientifically illiterate blunders into blindly problematic.
The scene comes late in the movie when the heroes have infiltrated Lyutsifer Safin’s (Rami Malek) island of evil to rescue Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) and Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet). Nomi (Lashana Lynch), Bond’s replacement as 007, confronts the evil scientist mastermind Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik). As Nomi is Black, the film clearly couldn’t resist the opportunity to have her drop-kick a racist, but first, it needs to confirm that Obruchev is a racist.
So, facing Nomi, Obruchev gives a little villain speech about how he could use his genetically targeted Project Heracles to wipe her entire race off the planet. Then she drop-kicks the human trash-bag to his doom, and we are all supposed to cheer, but I for one was too busy being absolutely stunned by what I had just heard. Scientifically speaking, No Time to Die tramples over a very contentious and weighted debate within genetics in a Godzilla-like fashion without even realizing it stepped on anything.
Because that is not how race works. And the fact that a movie operating on this scale, especially one that is clearly trying so hard to be more contemporary and considerate in its sensibilities, particularly with regard to its treatment of women and people of color, is making a blunder like this—in a way that many might not even recognize as an error—is particularly alarming. For all that Obruchev is a villain, he is established in the film as a world-class scientific authority; he is a racist, but his inaccurate claim is very much posited as one that is objectively true.
Race is not genetic. Sure, there are genetic components—certain physical traits that are more common within certain populations, or genetically linked predispositions to certain medical conditions that are more prevalent within certain demographics. But there is not, say, a race gene with one allele for Blackness and another for whiteness, or anything like that. There is no handy genomic marker or set of markers shared by all members of the African diaspora and only members of the African diaspora, like a cellular Black card. As I’ve written about before, DNA ancestry kits are based on allelic frequencies and educated guesses founded on a basis of actual science, but with significant shortcomings.
At the end of the day, as long as two populations have any gene flow between them, they are not genetically distinguishable, and humans have always gotten around. Historically, white people have been really in love with the idea of a pedigree or purity to whiteness, but the great thing about science is that it doesn’t care about how anyone feels and that’s just not how things work. To speak of race as being genetically determined in the way No Time to Die does is not just wrong, but wrong in a way that is in very bad company. Like Neo-Nazi, white supremacist, eugenicist bad company.
To be clear, race is very real—it’s just not entirely inscribed in nucleotides. Consistently, the idea that race is fully rooted in genetics has been strongly tied to individuals and groups who need this to be true as a prerequisite to regarding certain races as biologically superior to others. There has never been compelling evidence to support a conclusive biological basis for race, even back in the heyday of Social Darwinism well before anyone knew what DNA was. In The Descent of Man, in the midst of a bunch of attempted anthropology that has aged very, very poorly, even Charles Darwin himself—hardly a radical thinker on the subject of race, but a keen scientific mind—felt the need to throw in the disclaimer, “It may be doubted whether any character can be named which is distinctive of a race and is constant.”
Eugenics is morally reprehensible, but when it comes to race it is also simply unscientific because it rests on a scientifically flawed foundation—one that No Time to Die unthinkingly validates in a scene that is actively trying to hit on anti-racist messaging with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The sheer irony would be delicious if it weren’t so absolutely terrible.
Image sources (in order of posting): Nicola Dove, DANJAQ, LLC, MGM