Project MKUltra was an infamous series of experiments conducted by the US’s CIA in the early ’50s that ran until 1973. Many of these experiments were illegal, cruel and many of these did not obtain informed consent from their participants. Many of the experiments included mind control, LSD, abuse, and sensory deprivation. Much of MKUltra was about mind control, brainwashing, and interrogation techniques. In 1974 The New York Times reported on MKUltra, alleging that these were illegal acts and soon the cat was out of the bag.
Like most things shocking and scary it didn’t take long for Hollywood to grab hold of it. There has been a spate of American TV shows that use the concept of MKUltra as part of the action including Netflix’s hit Stranger Things, Granite Flats as well as being mentioned in everything from X-Files to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Something about the experiments and how barbaric they were really resonated with worldwide audiences.
American Ultra (2015)
This one uses the sleeper agent/ Manchurian candidate idea as well as a newer trope of having a trusted friend/lover etc. turning out to be a handler. On the surface this one seems more lighthearted than the rest of the MKUltra based films but whilst it lacks a lot of the paranoia you expect it makes up for it with heaps of violence. It is also worth noting that the writer of this film, Max Landis has used the concept of MKUltra several times including this film, 2016’s Mr. Right, and secret government facilities and rogue people of interest are heavily at play in his television show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
The Bourne series (2002 – 2016)
The Bourne series is laden with paranoia and uncertainty as we follow an amnesiac who finds out he was a trained super-soldier who was subject to experimentation. The films The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy, in particular, look at the experimentation the characters go through to become super soldiers. Ultimatum shows torture and the impact it had on our title character Jason Bourne whereas Legacy shows us more physical effects. In Legacy, we see an experiment dependent on drugs to keep his abilities and brain function. The series also looks at whether experimentation on humans is ever ethically correct and it is left for the audience to decide whether the work of the scientists was reckless or worthwhile.
The Guest (2014)
If Bourne shows paranoia and fear of human experimentation, The Guest takes it one step further. This time, our protagonist isn’t escaping from a corrupt system so much as he is escaping from justice. He is basically Jason Bourne gone horrifically wrong. A subject of an experiment designed to turn him into a Jason Bourne-style super-soldier, unfortunately, turns him into an evil, manipulative genius who will kill anyone in his way if they put him in perceived danger.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
It may seem bizarre to start a look at the way American film was influenced by MKUltra to have a British film but A Clockwork Orange has also been influenced by this narrative. Most interestingly, A Clockwork Orange came out three years before MKUltra was reported on. However, its focus on Free Will vs the State is very similar to more modern MKUltra-based narratives. The making of Alex into a model citizen isn’t far off from the brainwashing of participants into becoming better soldiers. You could easily compare and contrast Jason Bourne for example with Alex in that they are both subjected to pain and torture. It’s worth noting A Clockwork Orange is the only film on this list to focus on a lead character who has no involvement in either the military or CIA. Alex is just a criminal caught in a system designed to break him.
One similarity all the previous films share is that the protagonist lives and either escapes or reaps benefit from the process. In The Guest and the Bourne films, however, both protagonists escape, lay low and get ready to pounce on the next target. Their endings are both brimming with paranoia and with the grim assertion to their enemies will be coming back and retribution will come.
It’s also interesting the way the government and military are portrayed in these films. There is a sense that they are both getting their comeuppance, having been targeted by those who they experimented on.
Many films look at free will and allow us to see how easily that can be influenced. Some set you up to believe one thing then tear it down to reveal the truth whereas some never give you time to catch up. MKUltra-based plotlines seem to have that idea but also with the caveat that what could save thousands of people and aid certain things (such as military/police etc.) could hurt those who are used for such things. These films tend to ask us a question: is it right to experiment on someone for the greater good?
So why does this tend to turn up in big American action films? That is harder to pinpoint. Part of it may be a reaction to the steroid-filled action films where heroes can trash everything with no consequences. The other part is probably to do without fascination with how far you can push someone before they snap. One thing for sure, the concepts and pop culture influence from the MKUltra experiments are still popular and don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.