December 09, 2006

Movie: The Island

I had a chance to watch the movie The Island last night. It is a well-made, fast-paced, and intelligent movie about what it means to be human. The movie starts off with an underground society, carefully partitioned off from the outside world because of a major contagion that has swept the whole earth. Everyone in this closed environment spends their days wanting to get to "the Island," the last pathogen-free place on earth. And there are lotteries that determine who gets to go. Lincoln 6-Echo (played by Ewan McGregor) begins to question their environment, and when he finds an insect that has made it in through the ventilation system, begins to wonder if the whole story about a contagion is false. So he sets off to explore, and discovers that the complex sits under a hospital, and in that hospital those who "win the lottery" and get to go to the Island are actually mined for their organs. The whole virtual world into which he has been indoctrinated is false. So he and Jordan 2-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), who has just "won the lottery," make a break for it, and are able to slip out of the complex and into the surrounding desert. They enlist the help of one of the workers Lincoln has gotten to know, and after learning the whole story from him, they set out to find their "owners," the people who have paid to have a genetic double standing by as insurance. In the end, they are able to get word out that the complex exists, and further, that the genetic doubles aren't just sitting in a vat of jelly waiting to be harvested but are alive and interacting.

The Island raises some interesting issues about medical ethics, cloning, and human life. The whole movie is based around the theme that clones are humans too. There would be some obviouls benefits to having a clone handy so there were spare parts available, but as nice as that fantasy sounds, with other attendant discoveries and medical advances like curing some diseases, the dangers are unspeakable. The manipulation of life that is required in cloning is not worth the advances. As the movie shows, it takes a loss of our own humanity in order to manipulate human life in that way. But there is also a weakness in the movie. The theme of cloning is treated as not problematic in itself. What causes the source of public outcry isn't that clones are being made but that they are allowed to be born and have conscious lives. Somehow, it seems, it would have been fine if the clones had never been aware of their existence, but once they become conscious, the seem to take on a new value. The line they are seeking to draw seems all too artificial, and demonstrates the briar patch of problems once we have advanced too far down the road toward manipulation of human life. But in the end, this movie is worth watching, both for entertainment value and for the conversations it sparks. Like Gattica, for instance, it is an interesting exploration of biomedical ethics.

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