Saturday, July 15, 2006

Attack of the Clones

This post is about a year late, I think, but having recently finished Ishiguro's rather excellent Never Let Me Go, and then coincidentally, having just viewed the notorious Michael Bay's The Island, I think it's time for some talk about cloning.

*SPOILERS AHEAD: ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.*

There is much to be said about Ishiguro's novel: its got a rich interior voice, and thus the representation of what it would mean to be a clone is developed with full attention to the desire for independent selfhood (an impulse that we recognize as "human") and the interdiction to give to others (another "human" impulse, yet one with a particularly sinister tone, when you realize that these people literally give of themselves, over and over again). I haven't done the proper research here, but I do remember that NLMG received excellent reviews, and for good reason. In contrast, however, Michael Bay's text, also about clones, although in a much different key, not only received rather atrocious press (including a flogging by South Park creators), but also bombed at the box office.

I'm not sure that the criticism of Bay is warranted here. The argument's been made about how his films are constantly the epitome of each and every action genre cliche (take Armegeddon, for example, which has now been released in a Criterion Collection version, for crying out loud). The Island, however, has more than genre-perfection going for it. If Ishiguro's novel mines the depths of interiority inspired by the bio-ethics of cloning, then Bay's film is exactly the opposite--it constantly calls attention to the exteriority of the same problem.

A quick plot summary: the film opens in a post-apocalyptic society, in which the denizens of a futuristic world are survivors of a great contagion. Their health is constantly monitored, and they exist in a closed environment hoping to win the lottery, which guarantees them a place on "The Island"--the last pristine place on earth. Our intrepid hero, Lincoln (played by--swoon--Ewan MacGregor. And note the character's name here!) questions everything, meanwhile sneaking away to visit his "friend" Jordan (Scarlett Johansson). He discovers, of course, that the Island is simply a metaphor for harvesting the organs of the citizens of his society. Lincoln and Jordan escape. The evil doctor who runs the "life insurance company" orders a team to track down the "products" before they alert anyone--particularly their "sponsors" [read: the wealthy people who paid millions to have these products, ie. clones of themselves, grown and kept at the ready. They were, of course, informed that the clones would be kept in a vegetative state.]
There's a lot going on here--far too much to gloss in a blog post (although this may well warrant more writing on my part). What I'm most interested in, however, is the way in which a number of critics rake Bay over the coals for the use of product placement in the film (Sony's X-Box, MSN, etc.). You see where this is going though, right? If the clones themselves are products, then the film in many ways is reflecting on human life being simply the logical extension of what all if for sale in contemporary culture. Individuals take on the role of corporations that trade in products without a second thought as to the ineffable value of that product itself. In a particularly vertiginous scene, Jordan sees a Calvin Klein advertisment starring her sponsor. Of course, this was also the same ad that Johansson herself starred in, in the months leading up to the production of the film. At some remove, Johansson herself is the product biding her time, waiting to provide human tissue for her "sponsor."

I'll leave off the ending, as it offers up some interesting meditations on human freedom and human trafficking. All I sayin' is this: stop being haters. Even Michael Bay can make a smart movie. Or as my grandfather used to say: even a blind dog finds a bone, once in awhile.

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