Memo from Planet Hollywood

JohanssonA film featuring exploding vehicles, men with rippling biceps, lots of gunfire, women of the big bosom — it must be the latest work of Michael Bay film, or a project aimed at “giving succor to the religious right.”

Come again?

Bay’s latest film, The Island, raises questions about cloning, you see, and it engages in the shallow character development that one critic concludes only a right-wing True Believer could applaud. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter explains:

For a while, the dystopian story about human cloning by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci seems more likely to inspire viewer games of Spot the Movie Clone as the filmmakers shuffle through any number of old science-fiction movies for plot points and design ideas. These range from “Coma” to “Logan’s Run.” Since human cloning itself has become such a hot-button topic, the film feels contemporary. Even Kazuo Ishiguro’s recently published novel, “Never Let Me Go,” deals with a similar story minus, of course, the chases.

What’s troubling from a political point of view is that these filmmakers have, perhaps unwittingly, delivered a film certain to give succor to the religious right. In this ethical horror story, scientists experimenting with human genetics to advance medicine and cure illness are cast as Dr. Frankenstein villains. The chief villain, Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), mouths platitudes about curing leukemia but clearly has greed in his heart.

Claudia Parsons of Reuters used the review as the seed for a reasonably informative feature story:

Several of the actors in the film also said they did not see it as a cautionary tale against research.

“I certainly hope we don’t get to the point that we’re cloning whole human beings and harvesting them for body parts but I do believe that stem cell research should be funded and supported and continued,” said [Steve] Buscemi.

“I hope no one would use this film to make the case against stem cell research,” he said. “Of course the technology is probably there. If we can clone an animal we can probably clone a human being,” he added. “Should we? No. But that doesn’t mean we should stop research in trying to cure diseases.”

Paul Levinson, a professor of media and communications at New York’s Fordham University, said historically movie audiences had proved their ability to discern fact from fiction.

“These kind of movies serve a very important public service, which is getting these issues before the public in a vivid and dramatic way,” said Levinson, author of five sci-fi novels. “It’s better than another movie about a cartoon fish that isn’t contributing anything to the intellectual debate.”

British actor Sean Bean’s character provides the most complex insights on the issue. He plays the director of the institute who pioneers the technology for birthing adult human clones, or “products” in the terminology of the movie.

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  • Andy Crouch

    Can anyone name a sci-fi film, especially one that includes advances in genetic technology, that is NOT a dystopia?

    I’m coming up blank at the moment.

  • Tim G.

    Utopian movies do not a good movie make. Unless it’s a kid’s movie. Really, who wants to see a movie where everyone is smiling and happy and everything works perfectly?

    Give me explosions, chase scenes, gun fights, and yes… “women of the big bosom”

  • Andy Crouch

    Well, yes, Tim G. but there are plenty of contemporary and historical movies in which the general cultural setting is neutral or positive. I have a harder time thinking of sci-fi movies in which that’s the case. Perhaps the Star Wars movies . . .

    I’d settle for a futuristic movie in which genetic engineering plays a role in resolving the essential plot conflict, rather than precipitating it (Jurassic Park, GATTACA, etc. etc.). In which scientists tinkering with life are not Frankensteins. My point is that I think this is a genre issue, not anything to do with The Island specifically.

  • Luke R

    >> “It’s better than another movie about a cartoon fish that isn’t contributing anything to the intellectual debate.”

    I think the swipe at Finding Nemo was a little unecessary — and since when is there anything ‘intellectual’ about Michael Bay movies?

    Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
    Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
    Marlin: What?
    Dory: Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.

  • Molly

    Hey, I take issue with that fish comment! Marlin’s search for Nemo contributed a LOT to this blog’s intellectual debate! :)

  • Glenn A.

    But Gattaca was a great movie, use it in worldviews class every year!

    I’d agree though Andy, can’t think of any scifi movie where the genetic engineering is good.

    What exactly does that bode of course?

  • Stephen A.

    Regarding the form, not the substance, of the column…it’s ludicrous. But again, it sticks to a well-worn formula for demonization used by the media.

    It sets up the (apparently false) notion that it’s a political sop to the (evil?) Religious Right, then it goes after the actors, who, McCarthy-like, are forced to make politically-correct statements indicating that they OF COURSE support genetic research, despite any hidden agendas in the film itself. (It’s sad to think that the Left actually believes this stuff. Sadder still to think they approve of the tactics.)

    I wonder why we didn’t see all this painful squirming about political motivations with that train-wreck of a film about global warming, The Day After Tomorrow, in which the world suddenly (in an afternoon) is buried under a mile of snow and ice.

    Because the message and the motives were “pure” in that case, right? (No MSM bias here. Nah. Move along.)

    Back to opinion … I’m sure those on the Left here will want to take the opportunity to say they’ll OF COURSE oppose any cloning policies that will directly to organ harvesting. Surely, we can all agree on that.

  • Steve Nicoloso

    When asked what he thought the most important part of the movie Finding Nemo was, my then 6-year-old son replied, “When Nemo’s father let him go back into the net”. Maybe Nemo wasn’t terribly “important” in the history of human development. Come to think of it, what movie could possibly be? But it was pretty damn important to one kid’s moral development… The Island would do quite well to equal that feat.


  • Will

    “2001″ can hardly be called a “dystopia”. And what about “Things to Come”? (I guess nobody watches it any more. If anyone wants me, I’ll be at the bar getting drunk… with the rest of the aliens.)

    “Alien Nation” was, of course, simply a transmogrification of the “buddy movie” which, unfortunately, failed to end them all. (The television series was more interesting, offering an opportunity to see ourselves as others might see us.)

  • Victor Morton

    2001 both is and isn’t a dystopia. I think it transvalues those categories completely — it really has to be seen in a Nietzschean context to make sense.

    Obviously, the computer goes wild and the whole human race is personalityless drones (i.e., standard sci-fi dystopia tropes).

    But on the other hand, man overcomes himself (by an act of killing). He then follows the monoliths and is literally reborn as the Star Child, as superior to man (a stage that must be overcome) as man is to the apes (the first appearance of the monoliths). And this transformation is scored to the soaring triumphal optimism of the World Theme from Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra (more Nietzsche).

  • Tom Harmon

    Wait. Exactly how is genetic engineering in GATTACA seen as neutral?

  • Glenn A.

    Definitely is not Tom, not in my mind. One of the reasons I love it so much…

    Plus, I love the line, “We have discrimination down to a science”