The Top 5 Worst Movies About Biotech and Pharmaceutical Companies

Published: Oct 19, 2016

The Top 5 Worst Movies about Biotech and Pharmaceutical Companies October 18, 2016
By Steve Zisson, Senior Editor

Off the top of your head, can you think of a movie that shows a biotech or pharmaceutical company in a flattering light?

In recent memory, “Extraordinary Measures” might be one but even that film makes negative points about big biotech. Harrison Ford stars in a story of two parents who raise millions to form a startup biotechnology company in an effort to develop a drug to save the lives of their children, who suffer from Pompe’s disease.

The film explores the true story of John and Aileen Crowley, whose children suffer from life-threatening Pompe's disease. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, the startup’s biotechnology executive.

The movie is based on journalist Geeta Anand’s reporting and book, “The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million—and Bucked the Medical Establishment—In a Quest to Save His Children.”

The fictional biotech companies in the movie are supposed to represent startup Novozyme and much larger biotech company Genzyme.

The movie does detail how drug and pharmaceutical research is funded but maybe that process is way too boring for a general audience film.

Despite Harrison Ford’s star presence in the movie, the movie was pretty much a flop and panned as made-for-TV quality. This wasn’t a blockbuster for Ford like Star Wars.

In the end, Hollywood loves to feed the movie-going public with stories about big bad companies. Evil, greedy companies are an easier sell for Hollywood. And given all of the controversy over drug pricing in the news this election season, it will be a long time coming before there is a positive film about a life science company.

There surely will be plenty of new movies to come that look negatively at the life sciences industry. Here’s the current top five from what will be a growing list:

1. The Fugitive

Harrison Ford did much better in the 1993 box office hit “The Fugitive,” probably because he had a better script, even though it turned mundane drug research into a ridiculous thriller.

Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble found in his research that experimental drug Provasic caused severe liver damage, blocking its approval by the FDA. The drug sponsor, nasty pharma company Devlin MacGregor wanted Kimble killed but the hit man offs Kimble’s wife instead. Big bad pharma companies have been accused of a lot of things but hiring hit men to further research is a bit of a stretch.

Tommie Lee Jones does a nice turn as Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard trying to figure out the mystery along with his sidekick Joe Pantoliano as Deputy U.S. Marshal Cosmo Renfro. Kimble ultimately prevails but not before a climactic scene at a medical conference where Kimble interrupts the drug developer’s presentation and accuses him of falsifying his drug research and having Kimble’s wife murdered. Medical conference speeches were never so exciting! Warning: watch out for the one-armed man (Andreas Katsulas)!

2. Love and Other Drugs

Pharmaceutical sales representatives, particularly in a film set in the mid-1990s, are an easy target for movie script writers and they are skewered in “Love and Other Drugs,” starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Glyllenhall. The story easily adds sex and greed, two things Hollywood knows a lot about, into the mix during a time when Pfizer ’s erectile dysfunction drug Viagra was becoming a blockbuster.

The book is based on a non-fiction book by a former Pfizer sales rep Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reid. The book and movie seem to have little in common.

Pharmaceutical sales practices shown in the film are no longer employed by companies but in the mind of the public and Hollywood, they must still be rampant. They aren’t to a large degree. These days, physicians aren’t wined and dined like they used to be and many don’t want to be bothered now by sales reps.

3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It’s all the fault of a biotech company in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” if you believe the rise of the apes is a bad thing. Biotech company Gen-Sys is the evil company in this movie even as it tries to do the right thing by curing Alzheimer’s disease. The fictional San Francisco-based company’s experimental drug ALZ-113 ends up increasing ape intelligence to human levels but also proves fatal to humans. Whoops. Hail Caesar (the leader of the apes)!

4. Mission: Impossible II

In this Tom Cruise vehicle, Australian pharmaceutical company BioCyte Pharmaceuticals has developed a vaccine called bellerophon to combat the Chimera virus. The virus starts to destroy a person’s red blood cells within 20 hours after infection. Sounds like the fictional big bad Aussie pharma company (are there many Australian pharmas?) is out to do actual good. Not so fast. That can’t happen in a movie. Turns out, BioCyte Pharmaceuticals actually made the deadly virus to create a big market for their own vaccine. Luckily, there’s a good guy available in the form of Tom Cruise to sort things out.

5. The Constant Gardener

Clinical trials in Africa come under fictional scrutiny in a 2005 film, “The Constant Gardener.” The movie is an adaptation of John le Carre’s novel. Ralph Fiennes plays the lead as he investigates his wife’s murder and so conveniently uncovers nefarious made-up pharma company KDH testing its tuberculosis drugs on Kenyans in exchange for free health care. For the general public, this story has a bit of the ring of truth and it would be something a greedy pharma company might do. Of course, the TB drug causes serious side effects and even death, which produces a narrative that a pharma company is willing to accept trial deaths in the pursuit of profits. We all know that any trial that was killing volunteers would be stopped, don’t we?

That’s the top five worst. Everyone in the industry surely has their favorites and least favorite worst movies depicting their industry (so let us know them!)

But, we all can’t wait for the upcoming movie about embattled life science testing company Theranos.

The tale of Theranos, from its mysterious beginnings to its recent regulatory downfall and layoffs, is well suited for the big screen. Jennifer Lawrence is supposedly set to play CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Will the film, tentatively titled “Bad Blood,” be made? Maybe. But given Theranos’ isolation in the industry, this movie might not be as hated as the top five listed here.

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