August has arrived, and perhaps you’re considering a night at the movies. This week we feature two reviews of films now playing in theaters. Each has bioethical implications.

The Kids Are All Right—Really?

By Jennifer Lahl, CBC National Director

I’d wanted to catch this film after reading all the hype it received at Sundance, and on the heels of the controversial (and flawed) study on children of lesbian parents doing better than their peers. I figured there would be no surprises in a film about two lesbian “moms” (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) raising two kids using an anonymous sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo), especially since the film’s title is, The Kids Are All Right.

Surprisingly, there was some depth to the film as it played out the complexity of anonymous sperm donation, and what happens when kids want to find, meet, and develop a relationship with their biological father. The moms were divided about allowing the kids to develop a relationship with the dad. The kids wanted to engage and bring their dad into their family. Ruffalo’s character was cheerfully willing to meet the kids and later found he wanted to be a part of their lives, and be a dad.

Apart from all the problems I have surrounding the ethics of egg and sperm donation, IVF, and the rights of children to their two biological parents, the film troubled me because it reduced all the difficulties down to platitudes about the difficulties of marriage, and making bad choices (Moore’s character engages in a sexual relationship with Ruffalo’s character), without asking questions about should we have done this in the first place, and what about the kids—are they really alright, or do we adults just want to think they are alright in order to not have to think our action was, dare I say it . . . wrong?

For me the film was summed up when Annette Bening’s character, who was never pleased that Rufallo entered into their family, screamed at him, “You’re an interloper. This is my family. If you want a family, go and make your own!” Excuse me Annette? An interloper? Who invited this man into your womb? Who allowed you to have your kids? Who went looking for him and invited him into your family? I think just the fact that the children went searching for their father is proof enough they weren’t all right.

Warning: This film does have graphic explicit sexual content.

Inception and the Ethics of Shared Dreaming

By Evan C. Rosa, CBC Communications Director

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is compelling in composition, powerful in tone, and a well-told, multi-layered narrative. What we find in the plotline is relatively simple—the grandeur of the film lies in the implications of his concept of “dream sharing,” a process by which two or more folks can interact at subconscious levels. This is the foundational concept of the film, upon which its many layers of maze-like deception and cities of wonder are built.

We’ve all investigated our dream life. Dreams are powerful things. Phenomenologically convincing while we’re in them; curiously bizarre upon waking. Imaginatively immense, drawing on memories and concepts we thought we’d lost access to. Consider the near-omnipotence offered in a “lucid dream,” one in which you realize you’re dreaming, allowing you to bend the world at will. I think the natural reaction in watching Inception is to see it as an exercise in Cartesian skepticism (sans malignant demon). How do you know “reality” isn’t just a very convincing dream?

But a yet deeper issue emerges, and from one scene in particular (and caution, here’s a tiny spoiler). In a clandestine room, beyond a storefront display of small vials (containing the secret chemical “juice” of dream sharing), we find a dozen people, all heavily sedated, having paid to be induced to dream. Their dreams have become their sole reality—whether due to pain or regret or dissatisfaction, etc. “They dream to wake up.”

And this presents an important question about life’s value that Inception explores quite well: What is it about reality that makes for a better life than living in a dream? What if you could have the life you want in a dream? Would you choose reality over hooking up to “the experience machine?”

While the technological details induced and shared dreaming go mostly unaddressed, Inception’s presentation of dream building and manipulation powerfully suggests that it is our intentions to overuse technique to enhance our experience of the world that threatens the meaning of our shared reality. And the film’s exploration of the disastrous nature of toying with experience has wide applications to bioethics: drugs and hormone and other biotechnic therapies to manipulate our lives, end-of-life sedation and dulling of consciousness, the value of embodied interaction with the world. I recommend Inception as a thought-provoking and suggestive jaunt into the ethics of experience and an all-around fun movie puzzle to ponder.

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