THROUGHOUT LITERATURE and cinema, the fantasy genre has reflected our struggles. For all of its trappings and tropes—dragons! wizards! quests!—even the most whimsical fantasy offers allegories both personal and universal. What is Harry Potter if not a reminder of the power of love? What is the Lord of the Rings if not Tolkien's search for purpose in a world torn asunder by war? Each week, Game of Thrones wrestles with equality and privilege, and in multiplexes now is Warcraft—a film that, for all its gryphons, dwarves, and night elves, is ultimately a story of desperate refugees (who happen to be orcs).
So what to make of the new fantasy saga Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, which, early on, sets forth a darkly imaginative premise? Vaxxed tosses viewers headfirst into a make-believe land of lurid gibberish: In this sinister fantasy, no one is safe—for in Vaxxed, everyone from your family doctor to President Barack Obama is an agent in a conspiracy that targets the most vulnerable among us.
However unbelievable its set-up, Vaxxed's creepily elaborate mythology is well-trod by Andrew Wakefield, the film's writer, director, producer, and star. Outside of Vaxxed, Wakefield is the former gastroenterologist whose medical license was revoked in 2010, shortly after medical journal the Lancet disavowed his fraudulent paper that suggested a link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. But such is mere reality! To behold Wakefield in Vaxxed is to witness nothing less than a champion. Every epic fantasy requires a "chosen one," and Wakefield has humbly anointed himself. In cruel, cold reality, Wakefield is a discredited, self-aggrandizing quack exploiting the fears of vulnerable parents. In Vaxxed, he's a noble champion, waging a valiant war against practically every scientist, doctor, researcher, and journalist of the realm.
Weirdly, Vaxxed's chosen one never mentions that his medical license was revoked, or that when Lancet editors retracted his work, they noted, "It was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false." Also weirdly, in the scenes in which our hero is interviewed, it appears he's interviewing himself?
But lo! Such are the cryptic ways of fantasy's heroes! Yet as much as fantasy needs heroes, it requires villains: Grendel. Sauron. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For here we come to the crux of Vaxxed—the part that, along with footage of teary-eyed parents and slow-mo close-ups of screaming babies, takes up much of the tale's runtime. Boasting secretly recorded conversations with CDC scientist William Thompson (whose own findings, too, were discredited—though this also isn't mentioned), Vaxxed accuses the nefarious CDC of destroying research that proved a link between autism and vaccines, particularly in African American boys. And since no fantasy is complete without a prophecy, Vaxxed offers that, too: Warning of "complete catastrophe," Vaxxed vows that if we keep vaccinating children, the Dark Age of 2032 will mark the epoch in which half of all children born—including 80 percent of all boys—will be autistic.
Yes, yes: None of this will hold up for anyone with even a basic understanding of the scientific method, or of how data is collected and interpreted, or of how medical definitions and diagnoses change over time, or of how movies can manipulate, or of how these conspiracy theories do great harm to actual efforts to research autism. Those going into Vaxxed hoping for a fantasy that is, at least, well thought-out—the kind that might include the phrase "correlation is not causation," or that might include vetted science or statistics, or the kind that might explain either "herd immunity" or "how to summon a patronus"—will be disappointed. Eventually, Vaxxed draws as much from horror as it does fantasy, bringing in vague threats of other internet boogeymen: "toxic overload" and "GMO products."
If Vaxxed was any other kind of film—like, say, a documentary—Wakefield would be expected to provide proof for his claims. But instead, he seizes on the great escape hatch of fantasy—a genre that can, and often does, reflect reality, but also one that can shake itself free of it. Vaxxed is the kind of fantasy in which absolutely anything—no matter how magical or imaginary, or no matter how exploitative, backward, dangerous, or dehumanizing—is allowed. At least Warcraft has orcs.