Hollywood's inconsistent take on cloning
It's almost impossible to conceive of Hollywood subscribing to conservative or even—dare I write it—religious orthodoxy on any serious moral issue. But how about cloning? Just look at the results of Proposition 71 on the California ballot in November 2004. Californians—by a wide margin of 59 percent to 41 percent—approved spending $3 billion of taxpayer money on stem-cell research over a decade. Sure, money for human "reproductive cloning” research was prohibited, but embryonic stem-cell research and "therapeutic cloning” got the green light.
So, it's okay to clone a human being and destroy it in order to research possible treatments for diseases and disabilities but not to implant that clone in a woman's uterus. When it comes to "therapeutic cloning,” the ends justify the means, according to a large majority of California voters.
It's doubtful that any of California's Hollywood elite were not supporters of Prop 71. After all, that's why Mel Gibson's declared opposition stood out. It was such a striking exception, going so clearly against Hollywood's relativistic grain. Among the big-name Prop 71 supporters were pretty-boy Brad Pitt; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican governor of California and former action movie star; Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's Disease; and the late Christopher Reeve.
So how could it possibly be asserted that Hollywood opposes cloning? Well, check out the movies produced by Hollywood over the past three-plus decades that dealt in some way with cloning. I watched a dozen, and all but one would have to rate as cautionary, skeptical tales, with each film presenting warnings in its own fashion.
It was laughs and cloning in Woody Allen's 1973 Sleeper. After an ulcer operation goes awry, Allen's character, Miles Monroe, owner of a health-food store in Greenwich Village, wakes up after 200 years in a deep-freeze and is thrust into a revolution to overthrow Big Brother. However, it turns out the dictator was killed in an explosion. Miles and Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) must stop an effort to clone the dictator from his nose, the only part of his body to survive. In a memorably goofy scene, Miles holds a gun in one hand and the nose in the other, and says: "Don't come near me, I'm warning you, or he gets it right between the eyes.”
So cloning gets a bad rap when used to try to bring back an evil dictator in the future.
The Boys from Brazil
Sticking with the cloning-the-evil-dictator theme, next came a reach into the past by a bunch of former Nazis in South America who plan to clone Hitler in The Boys from Brazil (1978). Little more need be said. Cloning Hitler, which Gregory Peck's Josef Mengele accomplishes, spreading 94 little Hitlers to unsuspecting families around the world, ranks as a prima facie negative.
In 1982, a mix of robotics and genetic engineering was on display in the sci-fi film noir Blade Runner. This influential film leaves many questions, including whether the genetic engineering it portrays involves cloning or not, but it's close enough for our purposes. Replicants look like and function as humans and were manufactured by a big nasty corporation to do the dirty work humans didn't want to undertake. They are slaves and given life spans of only four years in case they develop untidy emotions, which, of course, they do. Blade Runner warns against cloning for profit and convenience.
More than a decade later came the eye-popping, action-packed spectacle of dinosaurs brought back from extinction through the miracle of cloning in Jurassic Park (1993). It wasn't too difficult to see where this was headed, but it was great to ride along. Man tries to manipulate nature and pays a heavy price.
Various characters issue caveats throughout the film while being chased by a T-Rex or hunted by Raptors. Jeff Goldblum, as Ian Malcolm, a wisecracking mathematician, gets the choicest lines. At one point, he lectures park creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) on cloning dinosaurs: "But your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”
Jurassic Park shows cloning for entertainment purposes to be ill-advised.
By the mid-1990s, with real-world advances being made in cloning, the movies involving cloning started to multiply more quickly. Judge Dredd in 1995 could tempt even some law-and-order conservatives—sick of a slogging, inefficient court system—to give cloning a try. In the third millennium, law collapses and violence reigns until new law enforcers—the judges—emerge as "police, jury, and executioner, all in one.”
Judge Dredd, played with familiar stiffness and grunting by Sylvester Stallone, ranks as the most feared judge. He also turns out to be a clone, who, according to one character, was altered "to enhance the best qualities and to screen out the worst, weakest frailties” in order to "create the perfect judge.”
However, the other clone in the project turns out to be a ruthless criminal. Even cloning in the name of justice has its drawbacks. Incidentally, the effectiveness of the judges must be questioned, as crime still runs rampant in the movie. Maybe they should have cloned former New York City mayor and crime fighter Rudy Giuliani.
But it was Alien: Resurrection (1997) that took cloning to a particularly disgusting visual level. Sigourney Weaver's character Ellen Ripley is brought back to life through cloning 200 years after her death, and along with her come those gruesome, slimy, nasty aliens. This is no mistake, however. Those arrogant scientists in the future believe they can tame and train the aliens, and put them to use for creating alloys, vaccines, and "urban pacification.” (Aliens as law enforcement; whew, Dredd looks like a pussycat.)
In addition to the vicious aliens, we get a look at the gross deformities resulting from the earlier failed efforts at cloning Ripley. In the end, the smarty scientists get their comeuppance, and the aliens are alternately caressed (yuck!) and killed by Ripley. Scientific arrogance leads to cloning gone wrong.
The 6th Day
While cloning brings gruesome deaths in Alien: Resurrection, the mission of the cloners in The 6th Day (2000), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a selfish desire to achieve immortality. No matter how one dies, or how many times, a clone with complete memories can be recreated if the right information is on hand. One character declares: "I'm just taking over where God left off.” Trying to play God does not end well.
Attack of the Clones
In 2002, the two most successful science-fiction vehicles of all time linked cloning to politics and war. George Lucas brought forth Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, crammed with political intrigue and deception. Along the way, Obi-Wan Kenobi unearths a plot involving the residents of the planet Camino. A source tells him: "They're cloners. Damn good ones, too,” and they're only concerned with the size of your pocketbook. Ah, what a surprise; cloners can be bought.
Obi-Wan unexpectedly finds that an order placed years ago for a clone army for the Republic is proceeding nicely—with 200,000 "units” ready and a million more on the way. The planet's prime minister says: "Clones can think creatively. You will find that they are immensely superior to droids. We take great pride in our combat education and training. . . . They are totally obedient, taking any order without question. We modified their genetic structure to make them less independent than the original host.”
Interestingly, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the other Jedi knights don't seem troubled at all by cloning itself, only by the mystery as to who had them created. Indeed, late in the film, Yoda arrives just in time with the clone army to save the Jedi from death. Obi-Wan concludes: "I have to admit that without the clones, it would not have been a victory.”
Revenge of the Sith
However, it becomes clear in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) that it was Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, who ordered the clone army as part of his manipulation of events in order to become emperor. The clones do in fact follow orders without question and in the midst of battle turn on the Jedi, killing almost all of them.
Obi-Wan's warnings to Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones not to trust politicians were prescient.
Star Trek: Nemesis
Meanwhile, in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), those war-loving Romulans create a clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard as part of a scheme to replace the real thing. The plot falters, and the Picard clone, Shinzon, is exiled to a dark, dreaded life. But he returns in an alliance with the military to run the empire and is bent on getting rid of the original Picard.
Shinzon proclaims the frustration of being the mere clone of Picard: "My life is meaningless as long as you're still alive. What am I while you exist? A shadow? An echo?” At one point, sensing that he has beaten Picard, Shinzon speaks of "the victory of the echo over the voice.” This clone's got self-esteem issues.
There's also a good deal about "nature vs. nurture” in the film. Picard, with his upbringing and background, becomes the honorable leader of the starship Enterprise. Shinzon's oppression and suffering leads to his life of evil. Shinzon tells Picard: "Had you lived my life you'd be doing exactly as I am. So look in the mirror; see yourself.” In Nemesis, nurture wins out over nature even with cloning.
But it isn't until the 2004 Godsend—a lame, quasi-horror movie—that cloning films finally get down to the personal and truly emotional issues that drive today's embryonic stem-cell and "therapeutic cloning” debates.
Two loving parents lose their eight-year-old son Adam in a car accident and are approached outside a church by a doctor, played by Robert DeNiro, offering to bring back an identical boy through cloning. After some very brief wrestling with conscience, they agree to come to the Godsend Institute, the mother gives birth to the cloned son, and they again name him Adam.
All's well until the clone hits his eighth birthday. Then, typical to such movies, creepy dreams and visions start, and the new Adam turns out to be a grim little boy capable of murder and mayhem. The desire to alleviate suffering and loss through cloning translates into a new kind of suffering.
The Island (2005) also echoes what we hear discussed today. The story focuses on individuals living in a highly regulated, sanitary environment, who believe they survived a terrible contamination of the earth. They long to win a lottery that will send them to a paradise—the Island—where they will repopulate the world.
Unfortunately, that's all a lie. These people are clones of individuals out in the real world—insurance policies for the originals, or sponsors. Being picked in the lottery actually means death, as the sponsor needs something from the clone, perhaps the baby growing in a female or a new organ. Two clones catch on, escape, and some way-over-the-top chase scenes ensue.
Along the way, familiar assertions are made. The clones are mere products, tools, or instruments used for the purpose of fighting diseases and extending lives. Significantly, the general population is okay with this as long as the clones do not achieve consciousness, do not feel, do not think, but instead are in a vegetative state. The cloning company breaks the law in the film by allowing clones to achieve consciousness.
The similarities to current justifications for embryonic stem-cell research and "therapeutic cloning” are striking. Embryos aren't people who can think or feel, just clusters of cells. The scientific fact that a genetically whole human being is created seems to matter little. It's only when people can be seen, and have thoughts and feelings, that life seems to be widely valued and protected. We shouldn't be surprised by such thinking, as evidenced by the cheapening of human life through abortion. The Island acknowledges this view.
Tragically, but quite predictably in Hollywood, Michael Bay, director of The Island, misses the ultimate point of his own film. In a USA Today profile piece, Bay is quoted as asking, "Whose life is more valuable,” clone or sponsor? He highlights the "human element” of his movie. But the article goes on to note that "the movie does not take a hard line against stem-cell research,” with Bay adding: "These stem-cell researchers, they could cure a lot of stuff—they're just not being allowed to.” He's obviously speaking of the quasi-ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
Besides, it's not as if those little embryos or clones can think or feel; they're just in a vegetative state. That seems to be where Hollywood, California voters, and many others are at in the debate over embryonic stem cells and "therapeutic cloning.” In their own morally vegetative states, if they don't actually see a person somehow thinking and feeling, then that person must not exist. He is somehow pre-human or sub-human and available for all kinds of experimentation. What was that about Hitler earlier?
The Fifth Element
One movie I watched offered a distinctly positive view of cloning—The Fifth Element (1997). An awesomely powerful evil threatens the earth every 5,000 years, but a group of turtle-like aliens have arranged to bring back something called the "fifth element,” which will defeat the big, bad, growing space ball.
But the spaceship carrying the element is destroyed. However, some cells survive, and the fifth element is cloned. It turns out to be a "Supreme Being,” who also happens to be a beautiful woman. With the help of Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas, the clone, perhaps with a pinch of feminist goddess desires, saves the planet. Does The Fifth Element do the better job at summing up views on cloning than all those other movies? The power to save others is presented here in an oh-so-obviously sanitized and positive way.
For all the warnings not to play God in cloning movies, it is a loss of God that opens the door to such relativistic endeavors. Pushing aside God, the human soul, and the preciousness of each life, science, unchecked by any true sense of morality, becomes the new supreme being. Whatever the scientists say will cure disease and extend life must be good—especially since the physical universe is all there is.
So is Hollywood really saying that cloning should not be used for resurrecting bad guys, creating slaves, generating entertainment, executing justice, taming horrible aliens, playing God, plotting politics, fighting wars, reducing suffering, or finding cures? Well, for many of those things, the answer is that cloning is a no-no. After all, who wants 94 Hitlers running around?
But Hollywood, 59 percent of California voters, and many others have not embraced traditional morality on cloning. Instead, they buy into a false distinction regarding human life. The fallacious difference between "reproductive” and "therapeutic” cloning has achieved wide acceptance. Yet, each denies the creation of human life as a gift, turning it instead into a manufacturing process meant for the use of others.
So, when looking to find cures and extend life for some, there's no problem with sacrificing others, as long as the rest of us can't see any signs of thought or emotion in those being destroyed. And I'm afraid Hollywood ultimately aids this moral ignorance. •
From Salvo 1 (Autumn 2006)
If you enjoy Salvo, please consider giving an online donation! Thanks for your continued support.Raymond J. Keating Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #1, Fall 2006 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo1/double-features