Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
[NB: I began this review just after the movie came out, almost 15 months ago, and never finished it. Finally, sitting around this weekend, sick and procrastinating, I decided to get it off the books. Here it is, for whoever's still interested.]
The 2005 techno-thriller The Island hides a ham-handed anti-biotech message amidst its helicopters, gun battles, and explosions of various kinds. It trots out some of the standard “clone army” cliches, but goes beyond this, in places literally taking its dialog directly from the religious-right’s anti-science talking points. It fills a certain niche in the long line of biotech-nightmare morality plays, but with a particularly preachy, and notably slanted, take.
Plot (such as it is)
If you’ve seen the trailers, or even just the poster, you know the plot of this movie. Story-arc-wise, it’s as obvious and clicheic as you could ask for, one of the worst of its type in that respect. But, just so we’re all on the same page:
The story is set in what at first appears to be a sterile, futuristic society that offers an unusually bland technical Utopia: everyone wears white jump suits, lives in hypermodern concrete cubicles, works absurdly boring and unchallenging jobs, exercises fanatically under supervision, and takes orders without question from computerized monitors that dictate what they must do, what they can eat, and whether they have too high ionic content in their urine. Friendships are discouraged, and when male and female citizens come too close together they are menaced by black-suited guards who gruffly order them to “watch your proximity”. Gradually it is revealed that they live in an isolated compound to avoid contamination from some unspecified holocaust that has ruined virtually the entire surface of the earth. The focus of their lives is “the lottery”, whereby lucky individuals are chosen from time to time to leave the compound and go to “The Island” – a tropical paradise which is the last uncontaminated spot on the planet. Pregnant women are favored – they “go to the island” as soon as they give birth.
One citizen – “Lincoln Six Echo” – hesitantly questions the inconsistencies he observes: how did things get like this?; what exactly is the purpose of their boring and repetitive jobs?; where does his friend, a scruffy tech-support character who moves around the unseen physical plant of the compound and does not wear a white jumpsuit, live, and why is he different?; how did a live moth get in the ventilator shaft, if every living thing on the planet was destroyed?; what is the meaning of his recurrent dream about a boat? He is the first to raise such questions, but he gradually infects the others with curiosity. He arouses the concern of the compound director, who calls him in for “therapy” and begins to monitor him.
Wandering around unauthorized, “Six Echo” stumbles into the medical wing. He witnesses a fully-grown clone being extracted from an amnion-like sac, resuscitated, and then branded and locked into the ID wristband all clones wear; a technician remarks “looks like we’ve got a good product”. He observes a pregnant woman – the most recent lottery victor – in labor. She delivers a healthy baby, but while she is asking to hold it the doctor injects her with a vile green substance. She goes into convulsions and dies as the delivery nurse holds her feet in the exam-table stirrups with a thoughtful expression. Running from this, he stumbles into an operating theater where the previous lottery winner is being systematically cut apart for his organs by surgical robots – he leaps screaming from the operating table and races down the hall, tubes and wires trailing. He is shot down by the black-suited security guards and dragged back down the hall, leaving a trail of blood. Clearly, things are not right.
Six Echo comes to the realization that the island is a sham and the lottery winners are being killed in these medical procedures. He attempts to escape the facility, dragging his doubtful but curvaceous female friend along. They escape to the outside of the facility wall, then through a digital camouflage screen, suddenly seeing the outside world as it is for the first time. They manage to make it up through a ventilation shaft to the surface, where they find themselves in an open desert. Soon enough they find other people, realizing that the surface is not deadly after all.
They contact Six Echo’s tech friend, who reluctantly explains the situation: “you’re not human”. They are clones of wealthy clients of a shady biotech company; grown to adulthood in their sacs and implanted with false childhood memories, they are kept docile in a programmed, safe environment until their bodily organs are needed to save or rejuvenate their “sponsors”. He is told “you’re not like us – real people”.
It’s obvious that the biotech company will go to any lengths to keep its setup secret – Six Echo and his not-quite-girlfriend (they are kept “at the level of a fifteen-year-old” and thus haven’t discovered sex yet; a real-world character is stunned to learn this and tells him “well, I won’t spoil the surprise – you’re in for a treat!”) must flee for their lives. The bulk of the film is taken up with a helicopters/jet motorcycles/machine guns chase sequence that is both unenlightening and unexciting; naturally the two unarmed, completely ignorant clones, on their first day in the real world, manage to destroy a mercenary army and all its hardware while surviving a 50-story plunge off a building.
Simultaneously, however, expository sequences with the biotech director make it clear what is happening: the clones were originally intended to be kept in a “permanent vegetative state” – which is what the firm’s clients are still told – but for some reason it was necessary to give them full consciousness in order to make the clone procedure work right. Now, the clones’ brains are establishing new neural circuits that correspond not to their own implanted memories but to the real-world memories of their DNA-donor “sponsors”, which is why Six Echo keeps dreaming about boats – his sponsor is a wealthy boat designer. Shocked that his firm’s “product” is developing its own will and independent agency, the director orders all “product lines” “recalled” – the growing clones in their amniotic sacs are killed, and the guards begin rounding up the existing clones on pretense of a mass exodus to the “island”, then stuffing them in gas chambers.
Luckily, Six Echo and his girlfriend Two Delta have nobly volunteered to return to the facility to try to rescue the other clones, and so manage to trick the guards, breach the security wall, and lead the clones on a dangerous climb up the ventilator shaft as the guards cut them down with laser rifles. The final scene shows the clones, in their gleaming jump suits, assembling in waves on the edge of the mesa that hides the facility, facing the sun for the first time and knowing that it is good.
OK, so so much hokum. The iconography of the film is interesting, however. I detect many quotations from other (mostly better) films, placing The Island in a distinct technical-dystopia tradition.
The obvious similarities to Brave New World and 1984 are unavoidable: vat-grown humans in a rigidly hierarchical system; technical amelioration of all inconvenient emotion; video monitoring of all residents at all times; etc. To some extent these parallels are inevitable in the tech-dystopia genre, and beyond the artificial-womb technology and the jumpsuits I don’t think the tone of The Island quite matches that of Brave New World – b0th are anti-bioengineering, but from different angles. In the end, these parallels are so obvious and so overused that I am inclined to discount them here. Others are more subtle and more interesting.
There is a very brief shot, looking upward from ground level, of near-future LA just as the clones arrive (by maglev train) during their escape bid. The sky is filled with tapering skyscrapers, and the canyons between them buzz with sky trams and flying shuttles moving in every direction. I am almost certain this is a deliberate recreation of an almost identical shot from the classic Metropolis – the prototype for all futuristic technical-dsytopia slave-army parables.
An escape sequence through a tunnel with shafts of bright overhead light, and more broadly the stark-white lighting scheme, alphanumeric character names, jumpsuits, and anti-sex regimentation seem distantly, but distinctly, reminiscent of Lucas’s first and in some ways best film, THX1138.
The general “athletic young male rebel gets hip to his murderous techno-fascist society, goes on the run with his sexy blond girlfriend in tow, gets shot at a lot, escape to a post-apocalypse wilderness” plotline is an unsubtle ripoff of Logan’s Run.
The ventilator-shaft escape with the laser rifles is an all-but-unmistakable quotation of the climactic scene from the first, genre-defining genetic-holocaust movie, The Andromeda Strain.
There is another brief shot, as the two escapees enter the (hypermodern, concrete) home of Six Echo’s sponsor, whom they hope will help them; it shows the building’s open-plan living room with a set of steps slanting up one wall. Again it lasts only seconds and is not emphasized, but it reminds me strongly of a very similar shot in GATTACA, also showing the (hypermodern, concrete and steel) home of the wealthy character who is using another character’s fluids and body parts for his own advantage, in another bioengineering-dystopia, “earn-your-way-offworld” social context.
The “clones in sac wombs” bit seems lifted from the very similarly plotted Scwarzenneger flick The Sixth Day – which would also explain the helicopters, automatic weapons, and explosions.
These references* put The Island at the end of a line of (mostly) biological warning films with similar cultural/scientific assumptions. The greatest crime of the cloners is to deny the humanity of their “product”. Whatever controls or limitations they may put in place (recall the “alcohol in the blood surrogate” that makes the Delta workers docile and complacent in Brave New World), humanity’s true nature will show through; the clones will develop intelligence and initiative, and claim their rightful place among God’s creatures, no matter what. (Recall also the “nature will find a way” theme from Jurassic Park – the dinosaurs mutate into breeding colonies even though there were made genetically sterile.) Naturally, inhuman corporate monsters claim the lives of their biological “products” for profit or personal benefit. (In Sixth Day, the officers of the cloning corporation and their wives were themselves clones; in The Island, the corporation’s clients incorporate the clones’ organs into their own bodies.)
Collectively, the message of the bio-warning films is that there is something essential to “normal” biological humanity that is overlooked or denied in technological intervention. It is inherently evil to assume control over the biological basis of humanity to such a degree that that essential nature can be overlooked. Those who seek such control are inevitably evil and can be relied on to treat the subjects of their technological work as non-human, in defiance of their essence.
What It’s All About
I dunno. This is one of the worst scientific-dystopia films ever made, and that in a genre filled with interesting but grossly dunderheaded schlock.
The criticisms are too easy and too obvious: the “cloning” procedure has nothing to do with real cloning; cloning does not transfer memories or experiences; “true human nature” does not just burst through cognitive blocks. (If it did, presumably every mentally disabled male would eventually “wake up” just like Ewan McGregor and turn into an unstoppable, commando-fighting, conspiracy-defying, good-lovin’ hunka man, and Scarlett Johansson would “wake up” and discover she’s his sexually curious girlfriend. And if that were true, I’d be shoving a knitting needle through my eye socket at this very minute.) But let’s let that nonsense go. This is not a film you bother to criticize on technical grounds.
Conceptually, the film has even deeper issues.
It’s hard, from the perspective of both content and context, not to see the “grow them in the lab then cut them apart for their constituent parts” theme as a metaphor for embryonic stem-cell research. And, in the scene where the sacs gestating the clone bodies are cut open in order to dispose of the inconvenient clones, the metaphor for abortion is as unmistakable as it is heavy-handed (arguably, it’s not even a metaphor). (The birth scene may also be a reversed metaphor for abortion: here the pregnant woman is killed and the fetus is kept alive, by a male doctor and female nurse who carefully mask their indifference to the murder they commit.) This makes that plot device intriguingly complex: it is both a literal (though scientifically false) representation of cloning, and a symbolic representation of stem-cell research and abortion – in all of which aspects it turns out to be grotesque and inhuman. (It’s a right-wing paranoiac trifecta!)
The viewer is meant to be horrified by each distinct aspect of this theme, but more than that, to carry that sense of horror over to their appreciation of the real-world procedure implicated in each of its aspects. The scene in which patients are killed on the operating table is gross butchery – so, presumably, is cutting apart a blastula to harvest its stem cells. The birth/abortion scene may be a (surprisingly subtle) call to see abortion staff as murderers, and the moral neutrality they claim for their acts to be as much a sham as is these workers’ indifference to the woman they murder. The gestation-sac murder scene surely has that intention. And throughout all this is the underlying premise of creating life in order to kill it and use its parts – a commodification, and mechanisation, of human life that, as we see it manifested over and over in each of these different bloody ways, we are asked to view as inherently illicit in and of itself.
We are also told the developing clones are kept in a “vegetative state” – though it turns out they are fully conscious. I take it the message is clear?
There’s more: the African mercenary assigned to track down the clones eventually comes over to their side. He identifies with them because, he tells them, he was once enslaved by an African warlord: “I know what it means to be less than human”. This encapsulates one of the most bizarre and cynical anti-choice slogans: that abortion is like slavery. (This was the reason for George Bush’s nonsensical response, in the 2000 presidential campaign debates, to a question about Roe v. Wade that referenced the Dred Scott case. It was one of his dog-whistle codeword shoutouts to the religious right.) They even manage to make it a black slave, notwithstanding that American slavery has been over for almost 150 years.
But of course the movie cheats. In criticizing stem cell research, we never see stem cells – we see Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Freakin’ Johansson. We appreciate the essential humanity of these biological “products” because they have human personalities and desires – we are emotionally embroiled in their lives, as in any movie character’s life, in ways that we are not, and cannot be, and do not apply to, fetuses or embryos. And the notion that “life will find a way” – that that human essence just will make itself known, is the greatest cheat of all: not because it’s technical nonsense, but because it asserts, as a plot device, the foundational moral belief of the right wing that is at the heart of most debate over these issues – namely, that all biological human “beings” are identical and have the same nature.
The stem-cell debate exists entirely and only because of the absurd religious assertion that embryos are morally indistinguishable from persons – that embryos are moral persons notwithstanding that they lack every possible or plausible desideratum of personhood. In The Island, embryos are persons because they’re Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Freakin’ Johansson! They’re six feet tall at birth, they walk and talk, they have fears and desires, they fight for their lives, they fall in love, and Ewan McGregor gets it on with Scarlett Johansson on the deck of a yacht. (And if that were what it meant to be a stem-cell embryo, I’d be stuffing myself into a test tube at this very minute.) The film makes the religious premise real in an insanely literal way: embryos are not just the moral equivalent of adults, they are adults! And there is no need, here, to argue that the lack of personality, thoughts, feelings, or language ability on the part of embryos does not make them morally distinct from adults who do have these characteristics – these “embryos” have all of those things.
When the former slave tells the clones that he is like them, he’s certainly right: he, like them, is a thinking, feeling, independent adult. The movie feeds us the “embryos” = “slaves” line by making the “embryos” fully adult persons, without asking us or them whether there would be anything strange in this intelligent, proud, full-grown black man saying the same thing to a blastula in a culture flask – exactly the actual equivalency the religious right unblushingly asserts every day.
When the two runaways confront their tech-service friend and force him to tell them the truth, the film makes him a caricature of the pro-choice position – using anti-choice language to do so. “You’re not human” is a pro-choice-style expression of personhood theory: embryos and fetuses are not persons because they have not developed the traits necessary for personhood. But in this case, the statement is obviously false: it makes no sense to say that to walking, talking adults, who clearly are members of the human species. Also, the language here refers to “human beings”, not “persons”; when he later makes a distinction between the two clones and “real people”, he introduces personhood but implicitly equates it with being “human”. This is standard right-wing rhetoric – to use the phrase “human being” in reference to moral persons, and then attempt to establish their moral bona fides by citing biological facts about species membership. The movie primes us to ignore the false equivalence between adults and embryos, and to accept the false equivalence between “human beings” and “people”. By rejecting, as the viewer does, the obviously false evaluation of the two adult humans in the film (they are human and they are persons; the techie denies both these facts), we are invited to assume the same statements about embryos or stem cells are similarly false. By accepting, unconsciously, his unremarked statement of identity between “human beings” and “people”, we are encouraged subconsciously to accept the anti-choicers’ similar misuse of those terms. The film stacks the deck by so clearly telegraphing the falsehood of the “non-human” and “non-person” claims in the case of adults, while downplaying or hiding entirely the false equivalence of terms, and the false equivalence of adults and embryos, that it evokes.
The film does more than cheat, however; more even than ratify uncritically the most extreme right-wing positions. It adopts and magnifies the misogyny of the anti-choice right to a monstrous degree. The birth scene, it was noted, is an abortion metaphor (a woman and her fetus undergo a “procedure”: one dies, one lives). By killing a sympathetic female character in a chilling, literally clinical way, during a metaphorical abortion procedure, we are subconsciously invited to view real abortions the same way. But the scene also incorporates, non-metaphorically, one of the particular ideological grotesqueries of the right wing: that abortion is somehow an assault on the woman having the procedure; that women are “victims” of their own abortions. In this instance, the metaphorical abortion becomes literally such an assault. The claim that abortion clinic staff are tricking women into harmful procedures for profit here is again made literal. The claim that abortion is more dangerous than childbirth – a reversal of the facts – is also made literally true. Seeing these parallels requires seeing the literal and metaphorical aspects of the birth scene at the same time – seemingly a contradiction – but the idea that one scene can have different levels of meaning is not a new one, and this scene, understood at both levels, is nothing more than an explicit and visual instantiation of almost every major talking point of the anti-abortion propaganda machine.
That is not the worst, however. Recall that the gestating clone-bodies are embryo metaphors: the destruction of the gestation sacs is the other major metaphor for abortion in the film. But in this case, the embryos gestate entirely alone – their development, and their “abortion”, takes place entirely in the absence of any representation of a pregnant woman. In the sac-destruction scene, abortion literally has nothing to do with a pregnant woman at all. There is no woman present. No woman is affected. The abortions are not justified by the needs of any woman – they are simple murder with no offsetting benefit of any kind. (In fact, they are murders undertaken to hide the sins of the one ordering the murders, the one who created the clone “embryos”. This is another metaphor – for the idea that slutty women have abortions to avoid the consequences of their reproductive irresponsibility)
This is the anti-choice position in its most vicious form, made absolutely literal. Anti-choicers are often accused of ignoring the women who have abortions, of seeing abortion as a procedure affecting only the fetus, of not caring about or noticing that a woman’s body, life, health, and interests are at stake. Well, it doesn’t get any clearer than this: abortion is really not about women’s health if women do not even exist as part of a pregnancy or abortion procedure. This as much as anything tells us where this movie is coming from.
I don’t have any long-reaching lesson to draw from this film, other than that confused and resentful right-wingers can make bad sci-fi too. It was startling, in a way, to become aware of the flood of reactionism buried in the modern-looking production values of this film, but I suppose it shouldn’t be. Right-wingers can hire CGI programmers just like everybody else. The film is certainly a product of its reactionary times – yet oddly old-fashioned-looking even when it was first made. (That it takes so many of its cues from 70s-era apocalyptics and panicky post-WWII literature is partly the reason, but then we must ask why, exactly, did its makers do so?) What prompted Warner Brothers to think an extended, preachy metaphor for stem-cell research and abortion, from a conservative perspective, in a sci-fi format, was just the ticket for late 2005 I don’t know, but they were clearly reading the political tea leaves.
Apparently, in the Bush years, everything new is old again.
*Wikipedia has a good article on the film in which they note further references to a number of obscure sci-fi movies I mostly hadn’t heard of. In particular, it notes that the plot closely parallels that of the super-low-budget 1979 horror film Parts: The Clonus Horror.
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