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Again, this time with feeling.


IN THE TEST TUBE WHERE HOLLYWOOD SPLICES the DNA of science fiction and horror, the result is often comedy. If the political class seems ill-prepared to deal with cloning as a real-world issue, it may be because they've been prepared by an entertainment culture that has often seen biotechnology as fuel for hilarious horrors. The current hysteria over cloning humans for organ harvesting, for example, was prefigured 20 years ago in Parts: The Clonus Horror (1978), but this film is remembered--if at all--as fodder for a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" travesty. Cryptoclone classics like Dead Ringers (1988) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) offer campy delirium without making any particular point (though Invasion of the Body Snatchers does offer a Red-scare allegory). Small wonder that recent pictures have gone for wholesale japery, as in the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity (1996)--whose weightiest issue is the quadrupling of the star's trademark daffiness--or in Dominique Pinon's unhinged portrayal of six narcoleptic clones in Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The City of Lost Children (1995).

Of course, science fiction often gravitates toward ethical matters, and when issues of good and evil are in play, Nazis can't be far behind. We all know that they saved Hitler's brain (They Saved Hitler's Brain, 1968) and that they cloned him 94 times (The Boys From Brazil, 1978), but apparently Hitler's victims did some cloning, as well. In the deliberative Anna to the Infinite Power (1983), a teenager discovers she is a copy of Anna Zimmerman, a Holocaust-era scientist cum Hannah Arendt figure. Despite hokey mechanics, Anna and Boys From Brazil are actually among the more intelligent clone movies. The nature/nurture question, for example, forms the basis for the outsized intrigues of Boys From Brazil (in which all the little fuhrers must be not only birthed but also raised exactly like the original).

But these comedic penny-dreadful horrors distract from the more chilling vision Hollywood presents: the antiseptic and dehumanized future created by genetic engineering. From the robotically all-American hausfrauen in The Stepford Wives (1975) to the sedated neuters determined to rid Robert Duvall of his emotions in THX 1138 (1971), manufactured humans in the movies usually come in two flavors--workers and drones. The trope has proven remarkably durable, seen most recently in the 21st-century Dilberts produced by genetic engineering in Gattaca (1997). In an odd flip side to this pattern, the lab-born beings played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner (1982) and Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) are Miltonic anti-heroes in an unfeeling world.

A world drained of emotion remains a favorite Hollywood nightmare, but the unspoken joke is that Hollywood itself may be helping to build that world. Who needs human replication or body snatchers when the multiplexes are glutted with clones of the sort of shallow stimulus-entertainment lapped up by THX 1138's drones? Last year, Time cited the JonBenet Ramsey story as evidence that 1997 was the "Year Emotions Ruled." Recently, the Weekly World News reported that scientists were planning to clone the toddler beauty queen. Leave it to the tabloids to add a third component to Hollywood's comedy-horror dualism: sentiment.

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Title Annotation:MEDIA JONES
Author:Cavanaugh, Tim
Publication:Mother Jones
Date:May 1, 1998
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