Real, Synthetic, Imagined: Alternative protein sources and visual abjection in popular cinema

By Patrick Weir

In the context of our project “Protein Matters”, I want to look at two films which imagine distinctly dystopian futures: Blade Runner 2049, set in a dystopian future of resource scarcity and a slave class of android “replicant” humans; and The Matrix, a science fiction action film from 1999. In this post, I want to examine how protein fits into these films’ imaginaries. This is to say, how it is produced, consumed and most importantly visualised. I am particularly concerned here with what Julia Kristeva conceptualised as abjection and the abject, and how these concepts can be used to understand protein futures.

Cinema offers an important, yet underdeveloped idea on food futures: that of the aesthetic. How food looks is often as important as how it smells or tastes. Putting these cinematic representations in conversation with Kristeva’s articulation of the abject in her book Powers of Horror, we find the heart of a problem for food scientists and sustainability experts pushing for dietary transitions. Replicability, in terms of protein, needs to be nutritional, sustainable (in economic and environmental terms) but also requires affective and intangible aesthetic qualities which vary across countries, cultures and individuals.

Lily and Lana Wachowski’s 1999 film The Matrix shows us a dystopian future where humans are at war with machines. These have created what humans experience as reality. Yet, reality is in fact a computer program, designed to keep humans docile, plugged in to vats and “grown” as an energy source. A scene shows the characters “freed” from The Matrix in a banal, semi military mess hall setting, eating breakfast.  This breakfast is shown in close up (image 1.)


It’s a single-celled protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals. Everything your body needs. We grow it in a vat.”

(Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Warner Bros.)

It is precisely the kind of artificial or hybrid nutrition, which exist now as supplements but increasingly we start to see sold as “one stop” type nutritional powders: products such as Huel, Y-Food, and Complete 360 meal.

Image 1. The Matrix, Dir. Wachowski L & Wachowski L, 1999

The issue of aesthetics is fundamentally problematised in The Matrix’s proteome foodstuff which could equally be said to resemble porridge. It is visually unappetising and could just as easily resemble vomit or a similar bodily fluid. “Food loathing,”- Kristeva tells us- “is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection” (Kristeva, 1981: 2). Such bodily substances are the response (a reactive production of a substance associated with disgust; vomit) to our (threatened) loss of distinction between subject and object (or being and not-being, self and other, life and death). 

This concern is also relevant to the huge market in fitness products for high protein supplements which has seen them expand in type to also be produced and sold as literal “food substitutes”.  These supplements turned substitutes are almost all sold in the form of dehydrated powders to which one must add water or milk, resulting in a liquid food replacement.  

This shows that what is frequently ignored when we consider these supplements or replacements is the issue of aesthetics, or appearance. What do these synthetic substitutes look like? This is a question not only of philosophy but also consumerism/marketing of alternative proteins. It is true that these are two dystopian science fiction films and unsurprising that their protein alternatives appear as they do. I believe this highlights the issues in question though, rather than detracting from it.

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is set in a future where there exists a differentiation between humans and a slave class of replicants/synthetics. These are indistinguishable from humans, without technological devices to check this, and hence are able to attempt escape and live lives amongst humans. The film suggests that this flaw is limited to older models and has been corrected in the newer generations. However, due to this indistinguishable appearance and their experiences as slaves, they must be firmly kept as controllable, in the category of the non-human.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017 dir. Denis Villeneuve)

The film’s opening sequence features a character, Sapper Morton, who is one such AWOL replicant. His now free life is that of an apparently peaceful borderline hermit, living in an irradiated landscape as a “protein farmer”. This farm consists of a basic, smallholding complex (Image 2.). Within this he grows a synthetic “crop”, a worm-like grub, which he shows to another character as he describes the farming process.


This is a protein farm. Wallace design.

Sapper fishes a clod off his boot and pulls off a single wriggling WORM

Sapper (cont’d)

It only takes the one to start. Parthenogenic Strain. Constant doubling. They’ll fill as much dirt as you can get wet.”

(KOSOVE, A. A., et al. (2018). Blade Runner 2049.)

The visual economy of the film and the place of the protein-worm within it implies some catastrophic climatic event which has rendered the earth, or vast swathes of it, unviable for cultivation of human crops, and water to irrigate them with. The insect-like, synthetic protein is, again, shown to the audience, without commentary as to the antecedent events which have rendered it necessary.

If synthesis in this manner offers a way out of dietary and food supply drivers of the ecological crisis, then the protein imaginary in Blade Runner 2049 is visually less appealing than that of the Matrix. More concerningly, the image of the protein-worm is taken negatively to represent technology being used to survive, not prevent the disaster.  I will return to the notion of insect consumption as a potential protein replacement later, as while it is represented ex negativo in the film, this is just one fictional interpretation of it.

Food consumption is a deeply embedded, complex practice in many cultures, even if it appears simple for example in Western industrial meat production and consumption supply chains. The idea that one can solve a problem by simply “swapping out” one constituent part of the industry and replace it with another (i.e. swap out animal meat/protein, swap in alternative, synthetic protein) is not as simple as it seems. 

To get humans to accept any such shift in their protein consumption away from whatever previous staples such as meat and pork, fish, shellfish, and other animal-based foods, either to a plant based or entirely synthetic alternative, we face not just production and scale problems, but profound aesthetic and cultural ones too. I hope the vignettes in these films have demonstrated, that for many, and considering the timeframes we are working with, the shift away from animal based protein consumption would seem to be only acceptable to consumers, if the replacement is, as far as possible, created in the image of the creatures they are replacing.

This, as we know, barely kicks the can down the road. For those on, or moving towards vegetable/plant-based diets, their protein must come from somewhere. Overarching all of this is the problem these cinematic texts outline: That any ideas around food substitution/dietary shifts must by necessity (under our current paradigm anyway, one which I believe is part of the problem) follow a kind of Anthropocentrism. The Matrix and Blade Runner both demonstrate this clearly: Humans have an idea of what protein looks like; and what it tastes like. It is important to mention that this is not a world of absolutes. They have an ideal of what protein looks and tastes like. And this ideal is represented in negativo in movies scene as mentioned before. Humans seem to have established a contemporary spectrum of what is acceptable as a protein alternative to their ideal. This idea of ideal types and the gap between world and object is responsible for this world where insects fall into the category of the inedible, the disgusting, the abject.

Take this example for instance: During the colonisation of the New World many prisoners were deported from Europe, particularly around present day New England and Maine. Colonial prison regimes, while harsh, held to a common belief at the time: that the feeding of lobster to prisoners was forbidden, on the grounds that it constituted a cruel and unusual punishment, as the creature was being considered so repellent, and outside the idea of “food” at the time, as to be unfit for feeding to those, even on the lowest societal rungs.

Lobster today is considered a costly delicacy rather than an insectoid-like, abject “non-food. Does this give a glimpse of possibility into how an affective element required in a broader consumption shift might work for protein futures?  Insects, have been touted for some time now as protein rich replacements for their “higher” animal counterparts. This raises few to no cultural issues in some parts of the world where insects either form a regular constituent of the diet or an increase of this by necessity would not pose problems.

In cultures where insects have not been part of food and dietary cultures, either due to aesthetic considerations but also simply because of a lack of sufficiently nutritious species in them in the environment to make this feasible, such a shift would be more problematic.  Proposing insects in cultures unfamiliar with them now as a protein rich food could hope to meet scepticism, and often disgust.

Any need in the future to shift from one animal protein to another will have to overcome several obstacles. It will need to fill the economic, social and cultural space currently occupied in food consumption by animal protein, ideally at similar or lower cost and certainly with a lower environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. It will also require a reduction in other damaging environmental processes of the current agrilogistic models of land use, in both meat and plant based protein production. Finally, and this is far from a consensus, any future shift would require the replacement protein to address, possibly on a culture by culture basis, its aesthetic appearance vis e vis existing protein consumption imaginaries. In popular cultural imaginaries of the future (often found in cinema, literature and television), I believe we can find useful resources with which to address these questions.

Dr. Patrick Weir

Postdoctoral Researcher,

Protein Matters


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