Doc of the Day: Death by Design Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Death by Design

Posted in Days of Docs by - January 15, 2012

A surprisingly innovative and engaging look at the microscopic world of what you’re made of.

Poster courtesy of Posteritati.

Dir. Peter Friedman & Jean-Francois Brunet, 1997, 70 min

The science documentary is a regular staple of the classroom, unless things have changed completely and utterly since I was a student. In those halcyon days, I was one of those weird kids who thought that all of those instructional videos were actually interesting. But that was because I was uncool and took the “learning is fun!” message of Saturday morning cartoons to heart. But Death by Design is the kind of informational film that I feel everyone could enjoy. It’s quite educational, but it also has genuine philosophical statements to make.

There are many science facts that give you a brief trip when you learn of them. For instance, discovering that most matter is really empty space, or that matter is energy. This film reminds us that human beings, and in fact all living things, are really collectives of trillions of little living things working in concert. You are not you. You are just so many cells. Your personality and memories are information stored as electricity by some of those cells. Far out, am I right?

Death by Design explores cell’s ability to self-terminate. At any given moment, billions of little pieces of you are dying. They receive signals from their comrade cells, and promptly cease to live. It’s a constant process, and the death of the whole is its end result, when the system can’t renew faster than it kills itself off. You really aren’t made of any of the same stuff that you were before. The movie turns this microscopic cycle of life into a symbol for the cycle of life and death.

The idea even of cells “committing suicide” is off-putting to us. Scientists featured in the doc bring up how we don’t like being confronted with our mortality. Case in point, watching this film triggered one of those surreal moments of panic where I realized that I was going to die one day, and there was nothing I could do about it. But the movie also comforted me; it’s a firm, gentle reminder that this mortality is a natural, intrinsic part of living. All the best movies about death are really about life (and vice-versa). This movie makes the process so pretty that it’s hard to find it scary at all.

There’s brilliant microscopic photography on display here. You wouldn’t think slime molds could be beautiful, but watching one bloom into being as a teeming mass of cells surge together is hypnotic. It’s a surreal look at the world playing out invisibly all around us. But the real ingenuity in the film is its use of visual metaphor. Performers dancing in sync, autumn trees shedding leaves, Busby Berkley musical numbers, and more are all used to illustrate the microorganisms’ activity. It’s a clever way of keeping the proceedings fresh.

At seventy minutes, the film is brisk and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Death by Design is a great primer on how cells, evolution, and life and death itself all work. But what makes it special is its compassionate human side. It understands how to apply the mechanics of science to relatable life. That quality raises the movie to an almost profound level. Not only will you learn something, but you’ll be touched as well, and in a field overpopulated with cold, stuffy docs, it’s quite refreshing.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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