The other films of 2019 deserve a chance, but so far, “Genesis 2.0” is the best movie of the year to ask the question: What does mammoth meat that has been frozen for tens of thousands of years taste like?
This globe-trotting documentary, directed by Christian Frei (“War Photographer”), first takes viewers to the New Siberian Islands. There, north across the seas from the Russian mainland, men break through the hardened soil looking for mammoth tusks, the subject of a lucrative trade.
From the outset, the movie tells two stories in parallel — one about the mammoth hunters, the other about scientific advances that, with some imagination, raise the prospect of bringing mammoths back. Tagging along with the tusk hunters, Maxim Arbugaev, who is credited as the co-director and cinematographer for the New Siberian Islands footage, effectively becomes part of their team as they search for intact tusks. The hunters, despite risking their lives, barely share in the down-market proceeds. They are part of an unsustainable supply chain that will itself eventually go the way of the mammoth.
Across the globe, Frei, a more gratuitous on-camera presence, is first seen in Boston attending a convention where scientists and students hope to make advances in the developing field of synthetic biology. The discipline, in theory, has the potential to take control of the course of evolution.
The two threads converge through the movie’s focus on two brothers, who themselves have something of a symbiotic relationship. Peter Grigoriev hunts for mammoth tusks. The more educated Semyon Grigoriev runs a mammoth museum in Yakutsk. And when a mammoth carcass — well preserved enough to bleed — is discovered, Semyon sets about trying to have the animal cloned.
He finds the apparent man for the job in Hwang Woo-suk in South Korea, who talks up his success with dog cloning. He and his employees begin dissecting the mammoth chunks. (Comically, we see a sample being stored in an incubator labeled “MAMMOTH,” as if it were just one more animal at the cloning lab.)
Hwang also brings Semyon along for a visit to B.G.I., an institute in China devoted to genome sequencing — turning life into big data, in the movie’s words.
Only belatedly does “Genesis 2.0” get around to acknowledging that Hwang was involved in a scandal for fraudulent research practices, a revelation that punctures his credibility and also the film’s — although the rug-pulling may be a key to understanding what Frei is up to.
In a sense, the movie is a portrait of multiple sets of foolhardy expeditioners, scientists who dream of doing the impossible and hunters who search for mammoth remains despite a longstanding superstition that finding them will bring bad luck. (One of the hunters, Spira, is portrayed as increasingly succumbing to desperation and perhaps madness.)
While the sights and sounds here are unique, the movie seems frustratingly torn about whether to buy the futurism and mysticism it’s selling. An omnipresent score by Max Richter and Edward Artemyev oversells the wonder factor. By the end, one of the few things that seems certain is that nearly everyone who comes into contact with the raw mammoth material appears remarkably indelicate with it. That’s a rare find — handle with care! And for God’s sake, don’t eat it.