3X3: cancer in movies

We discuss cancer in movies at the 1:20 mark of the Qt3 Movie Podcast of 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Please keep in mind the topic is limited to movies that are not about cancer! So you can put your Terms of Endearment picks back on the shelf.

3. Fletch
2. Fight Club

  1. Constantine

Kelly Wand
3. Brain Candy
2. Fight Club

  1. Videodrome

Tom Chick
3. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
2. Guardians of the Galaxy

  1. The Fountain

What are your picks for the most effective uses of cancer in movies? Again, keep in mind we’re not talking about movies that revolve around cancer. Please listen to the podcast to hear our picks, and also to hear Tom read a bunch of really good listener picks. Also, if you haven’t listened to the London Has Fallen podcast, jump to the 2:36 mark (thank you marquac for time-stamping that!) to get a little context. And some good news.

Send in your picks for the next topic to [email protected].

Phenomenon - the movie that dared to portray John Travolta as a hick-turned-genius who is feared by both his friends and the government. All thanks to a spider-shaped brain tumor. One of my Sunday-afternoon favorites to watch when it’s on

  1. Aliens (extended cut) “Cancer. Hmmmm. They still haven’t licked that one.”
  2. Kindergarten Cop - you know the line
  3. Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead “You tell me there’s a worse word in the English language than malignant.”

Saw, cause the guy is nutty and it doesn’t really matter why.

edit: After listening to some of the podcast I’d add that I think the Cloverfield movie is not a ‘guy keeps a girl in his basement’ movie, it’s a ‘people trapped in a basement’ movie. I don’t think we have any reason to believe any of them want to be stuck in there. Not to spoil it, but at one time or another each has reasons to think being there is a good idea, and each has ideas on how to make the best of it, for good or ill, but it’s not part of an elective plan. The no privacy at the toilet thing is reasonable, since that person had just done something hostile and destructive. That leads to no trust and no privacy.

That’s where the depth comes from, it’s not as cut and dried as it rubs the lotion on its skin.

What this topic made me think of isn’t a very good movie, or a sensitive treatment of the topic of cancer. It is Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, where they are attempting to cure alzheimer’s by injecting people with tissue extracted from mutated sharks. They expect this to work because of the old canard that “sharks are the only creatures that don’t get cancer”. This is, of course, inaccurate. It seems like naked mole rats don’t, though.

Checking my facts on this post, I came across Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy, which seems like an even worse cancer/shark movie. Scientist (Jeffrey Combs!) injects his son with hammerhead shark DNA to cure his kidney cancer, turning him into a man/shark hybrid that kills everyone in sight. A Syfy original!


Yeah, good one. Central to the story, but not the focus.

Gran Torino - I liked how cancer (technically unnamed iirc, but Eastwood’s character had lung cancer) was understated in the film, but provided an impetus to his actions and added depth where there would have otherwise been nothing but question marks. While the movie itself isn’t one of my all time favorites, I appreciated how the film depicted such a thing could touch on all different aspects of somebody’s life.

Royal Tenenbaums is my other favorite “fake cancer” movie besides Fletch (which is a great choice; Tim Matheson is a great letch). It drives the plot but it’s not a movie about cancer at all. I love how haphazardly Royal fakes it. Cheese burgers and fries all the time, smoking and drinking; he only comes off as sick whenever Chaz gets upset. And yet it hooks Ritchie and and Etheline and to a degree Margot (who might just be going along with the herd honestly). It would have worked if not for that no good meddling Richard Sherman. Two of my favorite scenes are when Royal reveals it to Etheline (where he just completely cocks it up) and when he’s busted. Completely unapologetic.

“Dying Young” with Julia Roberts is a “must see” for anyone with Leukemia or anyone who is a caregiver to someone on chemotherapy.

A listener mentioned Thank You for Smoking… but not the scene I’d have chosen.

There’s also a talk show scene early on where a health advocate brings a kid with cancer on the show. Pro-cigarette lobbyist Aaron Eckhart is so smooth that he turns cancer kid to his side and they even exchange a big handshake. I think in a later scene the health advocate guy gets berated for finding a kid with cancer that’s “not pathetic enough”.


Watchmen - Cancer is the catalyst that pushes Dr. Manhattan off Earth.

What an unusual stricture on this week’s 3x3! Movies about cancer but are not about cancer? I feel like if it wasn’t for that limitation, I would be sure to mention how I haven’t seen Synecdoche, NY yet but how I gather that would probably be a wonderful choice. Or I’d choose Magnolia (yet again) and how the sins-of-the-father-visited-on-the-kids plot ties in to a guy just diagnosed with the big C to another guy who is on his deathbed of the same disease, and how it affects those people and their loved ones and caretakers, plus frogs for some reason. Or maybe I’d mention Louis CK’s sidekick character in Trumbo, where Louis CK was tossed in a time machine back to the blacklist era, but he’s down a cancerous lung; every day he has to struggle against the government trying to stomp on him even while his body is trying to kill him (though he still appears to have a pack-a-day habit). Or maybe I’d mention 50/50, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt learns not to be such a jerk to his mom, Angelica Huston. But those, to me, are about cancer. I don’t want to get pulled over by the cancer cops. So I’m getting more abstract.

These are movies where I don’t think cancer isn’t even mentioned, but I think there are about important plot points or sociological movements that resemble the spread of cancerous cells throughout a relatively healthy body. For what is cancer but the manifestation of the Declaration of Independence, where cells belonging to one collective group subscribe to life (we’re living cells!), liberty (screw what the walking, thinking, rest of the body wants!) and pursuit of happiness (we should convince the other cells of the body to go our way, that would be awesome!). Let’s talk about cancer of the body politic. In movies.

  1. City Of God

The patient: The City of God, the heavily ironic name for a slum outside Rio de Janeiro.

Causes and risk factors: Poverty, institutional corruption, desperation, envy. And of course, increasing levels of background radiation of crime.

Symptoms and diagnosis: After suffering from decades of relatively benign tumors of crime, the city shudders when a street kid violently ups the drugs-guns’n-money organized crime game. Robberies, burglaries, rapes, and murders skyrocket, violence begets violence, and even regular folks living in the City are helpless but to be drawn into the metastasizing conflict.

At one point, the narrator puts some aerial shots of the city up for us. To me, peering at the B&W photo slides showing what wards are held by which gangster, I’m reminded of a doctor putting an chest x-ray up for the patient to see. See that mass there, in the tangle of capillaries and bronchioli? That will kill you.

Treatments: The City of God reacts, and a rival gang steps up, and the two break into open warfare. The treatment is almost worse than the disease.

Prognosis: The malignancy is removed, leaving plenty of benign crap that can be tolerated. Things settle down at the end. The City still stands today and is about to host the Summer Olympics! Live strong!

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1978 one, not the 1956 one which is all about communism.)

The patient: the good people of San Francisco, California.

Causes and risk factors: If you occupy space in the universe, you can’t help but be subjected to random cosmic rays just passing through. I’m no oncologist, but it’s my understanding that sometimes a particle (or is it a wave?) will nudge its way past a chromosome or two. The cells containing these chromosomes are impressed by this random visitor, and start to work in their own interests. In this movie, weird matter falls from space, and lands on San Francisco.

Symptoms and diagnosis: People are replaced with polyp people. It happens fast. You’re fine one day, you go to sleep, you never wake up. The polyp people are quick to spread to important government and police forces, shutting down important immune systems. Even health inspectors have no immunity to this invasion.

(check for odd growths regularly)

Treatments: Oh, palliative care only. You might briefly be entertained by Brooke Adams cavorting around nude, as new polyp people somehow have to retrieve their clothes from the original host body. But Donald Sutherland’s struggles to stop the global takeover are futile and the movie goes on so long and wouldn’t it just be better to close your eyelids for a second?

Prognosis: Fatal to the human host (hopefully they got the Zodiac killer, anyway). But memes of men pointing and screaming will live on forever.

  1. The Matrix movies

The patient: The machines and artificial agents that serve as jailers to their captives, or, as I prefer, orderlies trying to keep the lunatics in the asylum from harming themselves and their neighbors. But as there’s no justice in a cruel world, even the robots can contract a terminal disease.

Causes and risk factors: The longer you last, the more likely you are to pick up something. The humans don’t know it, but they’ve been captive for a long time, either stuck inside Plato’s Allegory of the Cave that looks like the late 1990s tech industry and rave scene or stuck inside a slightly more literal cave. Either way, they only know the lies that the AIs lie to them, and they’re occasionally rebooted. The system is generally orderly. The problem from comes from humans being carcinogenic to artificial intelligence, and AI are around humans all the damn time.

Symptoms and diagnosis: A subroutine of a subroutine is infected and is able to self-replicate. The software agent no longer follows the commands of the host. It spreads to different systems. It’s almost ironic, since in the first movie it was bitching to a human consciousness that it was humans that were the cancer. But this Smith tumor not only expands to consume pretty much everyone in the Allegory of the Cave, it is somehow incredibly able to transmit outside its usual environment to the quote-unquote real world. Now who is the cancer metaphor, Agent Smith?

Treatments: Extremely experimental, extremely alternative medicine. Forget radiation, chemicals, or biologics. The machines swallow one of their little tools to poison the cancer with allegorical, informational damage, and it seems to do the trick. Code is rewritten and neutralized.

pictured: cancer treatment

Prognosis: The outlook is surprisingly cheery, despite a 36% Rotten Tomatoes rating. And I liked Cloud Atlas, anyway.

Runners Up: The Room. “I have breast cancer.” Then it is never mentioned again.
Akira: Neoplasm is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E.
Fight Club: the Project Mayhem and Fight Club cells spread from city to city like lymph drifting between nodes.

Keep up the good fight, Tom, and congratulations on the one-year!

Slow clap. You have outdone yourself, Mr. DJ South Carolina Man. And that’s no mean feat!


That was epic.


Impressive. Most impressive.