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Summer 2004 | Volume 26, Number 7 | Books & Film

Attack of the Big-Screen Clones

Reviewing Hollywood’s Portrayals of Genetic Engineering and Its Possible Perils

“Sometimes ethics have to take a back seat,” says Jessie Duncan, the grieving mother in “Godsend,” a recent box- office bomb. Jessie’s son is dead, and she’s ready to make a deal with the devil — a sinister scientist played by Robert DeNiro — in order to “clone” him back to life. If you watch many horror movies, you know where this is going.

Actor Cameron Bright plays a young human clone who brings his parents a world of trouble in the 2004 film “Godsend.”

But is “Godsend” really a film about cloning? Like “The Exorcist,” this movie exploits two basic human fears: the discomfort parents experience when their children grow independent enough to resist them, and the fear of demonic forces. Here, genetic meddling is just a device by which nightmares break loose onscreen. While cloning has become a household word, the real science, variations such as “therapeutic cloning,” and the accompanying ethical dilemmas continue to elude most clone-curious screenwriters. As in “Star Wars: Episode Two — Attack of the Clones,” the emphasis remains on sensationalizing the production of full-person human clones.

In “Sleeper,” Woody Allen’s sci-fi comedy, Allen foils a future Orwellian government’s plan to clone an assassinated evil leader from his last remaining body part: his nose. The hero sneaks into the lab (“We’re here to see the nose! I hear it was running.”) and then takes the proboscis at gunpoint (“Don’t come near me. I’m warning you. Or he gets it right between the eyes!”).

In the same year — 1978 — “The Boys From Brazil” took this premise seriously. The villains threatened to clone Hitler back into power.

The villains in both films exhibit various misconceptions (no pun intended) about cloning. In their worlds, genes equal genius. In the real world, science argues that cloned humans would not be identical in personality or intellect to their “source,” nor would they be inferior copies such as Dr. Evil’s “Mini-Me” in the “Austin Powers” sequels. And they would not arrive full-grown; they’d be born as babies.

These realities expose cloning scenarios in “The Sixth Day,” “Multiplicity,” “The City of Lost Children” and “Alien: Resurrection” as nothing more than far-fetched fiction. Still, art does not need to be scientifically accurate to be relevant. Here are three films that adults may find worth watching and discussing as we confront new questions about genetic engineering.

“Blade Runner.” In Philip K. Dick’s futuristic nightmare, “replicants,” artificial humans, surpass human beings in strength, but their life spans are brief. Frustrated, they set out on a hyperviolent quest to meet their maker. As a gunslinging detective pursues them, one replicant learns that he is capable of something more than mere survival tactics. In an act of mercy, he demonstrates that the essence of humanity is not about genetic makeup but about a capacity for grace.

“Gattaca.” In this movie, human beings have been genetically manipulated for physical and mental advantages. But there’s a cost: Unenhanced people must deal with prejudice and alienation. Vincent, a “natural-born” hero, says his mother “put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.” “We now have discrimination down to a science,” he laments. It’s a story of how the prioritization of physical attributes is destructive to the human spirit.

“A.I. (Artificial Intelligence).” Steven Spielberg’s critically maligned epic is an interesting failure. But, like the recent adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” it does explore the ethics of replacing people. David, a “mecha” programmed to love, can thus feel pain, loneliness, loss and insecurity. Rejected by his adoptive mother, David yearns to become “a real boy.” He gains perspective from another mecha named Gigolo Joe: “[Your mother] loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you, David. She cannot love you. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. We are suffering for the mistakes they made.”

These films may not tell us much about the science of cloning, but they do tap into something deeper — a sense that we’re on thin ice, that we could be in danger of favoring invention over compassion, immediate satisfaction over future consequences. However fanciful their representations, the filmmakers remind us that when we claim that ethics must “take a back seat,” we risk losing control of the car — and that when we ignore matters of conscience, we risk becoming less than the very thing we seek to create.


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From the President

As Seattle Pacific University gains notice nationwide, President Philip Eaton challenges the community. “Build your city on a hill so everyone can see what you are doing,” he writes. “Build a reputation.”

Equipped for Success
An endowment helped 2003 graduate Vickerie Williams gain the confidence to become a key employee with Philips Medical Systems. [Campaign]

Honor Roles
A President’s Chapel in May honored five faculty and staff members for their individual excellence. [Campus]

Three Faculty Say Good-Bye
As they retire, three professors mark the completion of their remarkable careers at Seattle Pacific University and beyond. [Faculty]

The 2004 Medallion Awards
Alumni awards spotlight 10 Seattle Pacific graduates who have engaged the culture in various ways. [Alumni]

The Heritage Mile
Before her hip-replacement surgery, Doris Heritage and 200 of her students and friends ran a final mile together — and raised money for the Heritage Scholarship Endowment. [Athletics]

My Response
Debra Prinzing, 1981 SPU alumna, helps readers find God in their gardens. “… I think the pursuit of beauty in the garden is a pursuit to know God better,” she says.