The prospect of watching Showtime's new documentary Citizen Bio was daunting, simply because I had no idea what "biohacking" even was. From the sound of it, I imagined a neo-futurist Matrix world, where flesh meets technology, and humans are fitted with data ports. Director Trish Dolman clearly anticipated viewers like me, as multiple definitions appear on the screen within the film's first five minutes, including the term "biohacker" itself ("someone who is not an official expert or professional scientist who does scientific experiments with biological material"). Within the parameters of this documentary, biohackers are presented as techno-anarchists working outside of the boundaries of both the medical profession and the capitalist system, experimenting on themselves with renegade gene-altering therapies, hoping to attain everything from increased muscle mass, to extended lifespans, to cures for diseases like HIV.
There's also the matter of Aaron Traywick, the central character around whom Citizen Bio revolves. It's not hard to see why: not only was Traywick a kind of carnival barker for the biohacker movement — loudly publicizing his radical cures, along with his intent to disrupt the corporate biomedical paradigm — but he also died under mysterious circumstances, lying face down in a sensory deprivation pod, in 2018. The opening moments of Citizen Bio feature a chorus of overlapping voices labeling Traywick as everything from a "healer" to "a bad actor within the community" to a "psychopath." Was he a single rogue biohacker gone too far, or emblematic of the essential danger of a community looking to "hack" the human body outside the parameters of accepted medical science?
Citizen Bio's strength isn't in making that determination one way or the other, nor is it in drawing conclusions or connections between this particular subculture and, let's say, applicable current events. Rather, it offers a primer on the biohacking community, with Traywick's story as the through line. That story seems to rest somewhere between other recent documentaries about fraud, including HBO's The Inventor, which told the story of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, and the two Fyre Fest documentaries on Netflix and Hulu. As with Holmes and the Fyre Fest folk, Traywick seems to be so obviously full of shit that it 's hard not to cast aspersions on whomever would willingly partner with him in the first place. Also like Holmes, Traywick — and the story of the biohacker movement in general — appears to have grown from the rancid soil of the current state of capitalist health care in America.
As we meet each biohacker in the film — and they're all white men, which is either an indictment of their movement or the documentary — each one talks about being inspired by a need to circumvent the American medical system because it's either too slow, too expensive, or it just isn't interested in coming up with genetic cures when it can get the public to pay through the nose for prescription drugs. Through this lens, the biohacker's aims seem reasonable. It is obscene to have to make financial concessions in order to treat disease and fend off death. The film also takes pains to draw a line back through history to a time when "biohacking" meant the kind of self-directed medical research engaged in by everyone from Jonas Salk, to Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur and Nikola Tesla. This "citizen science" gave us some of our biggest medical breakthroughs.
Of course, with Jonas Salk at one end of the timeline, and a bunch of tatted-up "grinders" sewing biochips under their skin at the other, the aura of citizen science loses a good bit of its sheen. But those practicing it cling to that sense of nobility. There is a hacker "ethic" at play, a desire to improve life and the human condition by, essentially, messing with the genetic code in ways that they hope will end up moving humanity forward. "Don't wait for permission or approval" seems to be the crux of that ethic, and in Aaron Traywick we got someone who took that ethos to an extreme.
We get plenty of footage of Traywick and his Ascendance Biomedical company as it stages stunts and presentations designed to wow the public with a) their promises of cures to diseases like HIV and b) his own personal audacity. Part of the shock-and-awe appeal of these biohackers is the fact that they experiment on their own bodies, injecting themselves with genetic modifications that they believe will improve themselves first, and ultimately the world. As far as we see in the documentary, Traywick is an outlier, more of a salesman than a scientist. Other major figures in the biohacking community — like Josiah Zayner, a Ph.D. looking to make DIY genetic modification available to the public; and Tristan Roberts, who is HIV positive and looking to experiment on a cure for the AIDS virus — appear to be more research-minded and, at least compared to Traywick, more responsible.
Of course, relativity is a major requirement in order to find any of this less than alarming. We see Traywick through the eyes of his fellow biohackers, some of whom speak of him admiringly, some disdainfully, all of whom had some sort of history with him. Some of the most fascinating scenes in the film occur at a live presentation/stunt where Traywick injects himself with what he says is a herpes cure, even though neither he nor his bystanding colleagues know exactly what he's actually injecting. Those around him who admonish him or try to get him to pump the brakes do seem comparatively saner. When one steps back, this whole endeavor seems deeply questionable, if admittedly fascinating.
Which is why it's ultimately frustrating that Citizen Bio isn't able to address current events more directly. After all, w're currently six months into a pandemic that the U.S. in particular has proven unable to mitigate, leading some -- most notably our President -- to advocate for unproven treatments. It seems like there would be a lot to say about the conditions that have led to the biohacker movement, as well as the dangers it poses when an urgent need for treatment butts into a fundamental distrust of the system.
Still, Citizen Bio is a fascinating entry port, a way to plug into a subculture that few know much (if anything) about. Which makes it a bio-port in its own way. Someone call David Cronenberg, I've got his next movie.
Citizen Bio premieres Friday October 30th at 8:00 PM ET on Showtime.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.