Notes from Underground


Sci fi at Christmas

Clone, cyborg, son



If you find this column of value, please send a donation of $3 to TLD. More information appears below.

In many ways Christmas is a highly cinematic season. The feelings that surround the holiday are finally ineffable, better expressed in images than words. Language, wonderful tool of communication though it is, sometimes fails us when it comes to conveying the glory and beauty of truly profound occasions.

That is why, when pondering the "meaning of Christmas," one often thinks of movies: "Miracle on 34th Street," "It's a Wonderful Life," the many and varied cinematic incarnations of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and so forth. Highly as I regard these and other explicitly Christmas-themed films, however, they were not the formative movies of my youth. I grew up in the '70s and '80s, and from an early age imbibed and internalized the science-fiction ethos of that time. The original Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones movies thus appeal to me with more immediacy than countless, no doubt superior films from previous eras and separate genres.

Science fiction, like theology, frequently muses over questions regarding the nature of the universe and the destiny of man, "big" questions. No science fiction movie that I know of has explicitly been about Christmas, yet many have touched on themes that are quite relevant to the meaning of the holiday. Christmas, after all, is the celebration of the Christ child's birth, an affirmation of the value of human life, starkly and shockingly displayed in God's willingness to be incarnated as a man. Since science fiction is often attuned to the possibilities inherent in technology, both for good and for ill, it often addresses what Catholic theology terms "culture of life" issues. Yet because sci fi is what it is, with the nerdy-geeky baggage that it carries, these movies often don't get proper credit; they are often dismissed as juvenile, campy, or cheesy, and many scenes of real power and profundity remain unappreciated by all but a few.

Here, then, are three scenes of subtle but immense resonance that I wish to highlight this Christmas season. (Copious spoilers follow.)

1) "Moon" (2009) is a relatively low-key, low-budget film with a marvelously heady, high-concept premise. The plot concerns Sam Bell, a sad sack working a lonely three-year stint for Lunar Industries, a corporation harvesting solar energy from the surface of the Moon. (The film begins with a delightful PSA in which the company unctuously establishes its "Green" bona fides, declaring it has made energy cheap and safe, with no discernable downside.) Sam — played by Sam Rockwell — labors at the lunar plant, doing necessary yet menial tasks. His only companion is Gerty (articulated by the hypnotically calm-voiced Kevin Spacey), a robot whose personality distinctly recalls that of HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey," albeit of a benign, non-homicidal variety.

With his tour of duty winding down, Sam is clearly unwell. He keeps suffering headaches, his complexion has grown pallorous, and his teeth are falling out. What's more, he is reeling with simultaneous cabin fever and homesickness, and generally seems on the brink of nervous collapse. Nevertheless, all is well; after all, he'll soon be home ...

Or so he thinks. But presently the bottom falls out of all of Sam's assumptions. After a freak accident at the station nearly leaves him dead, Sam wakes up to be greeted by ... himself.

The "new" Sam Bell, to be sure, is as befuddled by this meeting as his counterpart. Having just been awakened that morning for what he assumed to be the start of his own three-year stint, he didn't expect to rescue an identical twin he never knew existed. The two men find that they have all of the same memories, but for the fact that Sam II has seemingly just arrived at the beginning of his Moon-duty, tanned, rested, and healthy.

Eventually, the two Sams discover the terrible truth: they are in actuality clones, created by Lunar Industries for cheap labor. All of the supposed memories they share are in fact naught but mental implants. Each clone is designed for a three-year lifespan, after which he perishes on what he believes to be his journey back "home" to Earth, a planet where he's never actually been. Several other Sams have preceded these two, and several more are ready to follow them; an endless supply of clones are kept in suspended animation in a closed-off section of the Moon base, each to be brought to life following the expiration of the clone before him.

Armed with the knowledge he's acquired, Sam II decides to deliver a shock to the system. After seeing his poor, ill-fated fellow traveler succumb to his tragic end, the newer clone plans to board an escape pod and make a daring excursion to Earth, in an effort to blow the lid off the inhuman practices of Lunar Industries. Gerty, who has been designed to serve and assist all of the Sams with whom he comes into contact, wishes Sam II well, telling him cheerily that he'll start on the same program with "the new Sam."

At that point, Sam II tells Gerty: "We're not programs. We're people. Understand?"

Gerty doesn't answer, and we're not sure whether the robot has the capacity to grasp the implications of such a notion. And will the citizens of Earth grasp the distinction, once Sam II reaches them with his story? Regardless of how others react, it is nevertheless a truth that this man now holds to be self-evident; he will cleave to it with all of his heart and soul, no matter what happens. It is his terse but eloquent claim to his humanity.

2) "The Boys from Brazil" (1979) is a wonderfully ludicrous movie, featuring two aging, ultra-distinguished actors shamelessly camping it up and having a blast. Gregory Peck plays the notorious Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele, who has managed to clone his former boss Adolf Hitler (yes, once again it's the "attack of the clones" scenario), while hiding away in Brazil after escaping the Fatherland at the close of the war. Ninety-three little Hitler boys, now just hitting puberty, were farmed out to various families with aged, domineering fathers and over-indulgent mothers, in an attempt to recreate the circumstances of the Mustachioed One's upbringing in rural Austria.

Fierce on the ghoulish doctor's tail is Nazi-hunter "Ezra Lieberman" (i.e., Simon Wiesenthal), portrayed by none other than Laurence Olivier (!), who lards his performance with all kinds of Oy Vey-ish mannerisms. Peck's Mengele, meanwhile, positively crackles with scenery-chewing menace.

The climactic meeting between the sworn enemies is indeed a cinematic moment for the ages, one of the most hilarious fight scenes ever. The two old codgers go at one another with geriatric abandon, trying to tear each other to pieces with their withered limbs. Eventually, through guile and assistance from an unexpected source — namely, one of the Hitler boys — Lieberman emerges victorious and absconds with a list of the titular "boys from Brazil," complete with current addresses.

So far, the movie's been naught but a fat lot of brainless fun. But then comes an unexpected, hauntingly powerful final scene.

Lieberman has returned, supremely weary, from vanquishing his old foe. There, he encounters a younger man, a representative of a powerful, clandestine Jewish organization, who demands the list of names. Lieberman asks what he plans to do with it, and the man tells him frankly, "We're going to kill all of the boys."

Ardent Nazi-hater that he is, Lieberman nevertheless expresses horror at the notion of wiping out innocent adolescent boys to avert any future Holocausts. In a final act of brazen defiance, the old man lights the page on fire, leaving the younger man fumbling desperately at the crumbling embers.

"They're not Hitler-clones; they're people. Understand?" No, Lieberman doesn't say it, but it's clearly the import of what he's just done.

3) Finally, there is the understated but moving final line of "RoboCop" (1987).

Murphy (Peter Weller), is a cop in a Detroit of the future that makes today's tragically collapsed city look like Disney World; it is a town gone utterly to seed, where crime and bureaucratic corruption run rampant. One night, Murphy is viciously murdered by a group of psychopathic thugs. But after his seeming death, Murphy is in a sense "resurrected"; his failing body is thrust into a metal cast and his consciousness becomes that of a bruising machine — a crime-fighting cyborg: monotone-speaking, apparently emotionless, at the command of a cabal of wicked superiors, who mean to pull his strings and use him for their advantage.

Yet something human still lingers within this blank-faced man of literal steel.

Like "The Boys from Brazil," "RoboCop" is a cheerfully enjoyable bit of sci-fi schlock; it is relentlessly hyperviolent, in the skilled, classed-up B-movie style of so many other memorable sci-fi epics by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven. Yet "RoboCop" also manages to pack something of a philosophical wallop, a subversive profundity.

The deeper themes of the movie start to develop when Murphy's former partner first meets him in his new incarnation as RoboCop. She takes him aside and tells him solemnly not to forget his origins. "Murphy, it's you!" she whispers, and that plaintive phrase continues to race through his now-mechanical mind as he recalls numerous events from his previous life, including happy moments with the wife and child he left behind.

In the film's closing scenes, the man of steel and flesh avenges his own murder by killing his "killers," both those in the criminal underworld and those in the ostensibly legitimate corporate realm who engineered his death and created his new identity in order to further their own ends. After Robo dramatically dispatches the mastermind villain in a board meeting, the shaken chairman of the board, in an effort to regain composure, remarks: "Nice shooting, son! What's your name?"

The titular character then slowly turns his head, and in a firm, confident tone, answers, "Murphy," before cracking a slight smile beneath his metal face shield.

I often tear up slightly just thinking of that subtle but resonant assertion of humanity — in effect: "I'm not a robot. I'm a person. Understand?" Then again, I may be weeping to think of all of the crappy, non-Verhoeven-helmed sequels that followed this trashy masterpiece. I fervently wish that they would just magically disappear, but some miracles just ain't gonna happen, even at Christmastime.

I know it seems odd to use Christmas as an occasion to discuss science fiction films. But remember that the "reason for the season" is the notion that the Highest of the High took form in a baby lying in the straw of an animal's manger, banished from the local motel owing to lack of vacancies. Clearly, recognizing the dignity of every human person, however seemingly humble or disreputable in stature, is crucial to understanding the story of Christ's birth.

In other words, all people are created in God's image, whether they're born or unborn, young or old, clone or cyborg. Merry Christmas; God bless us, every one!  Ω

December 23, 2010

Published in 2010 by WTM Enterprises.

If you found this column to be interesting, please donate at least $3 to our cause. You should make your check or money order payable in U.S. dollars to WTM Enterprises and send it to:

WTM Enterprises
P.O. Box 224
Roanoke, IN 46783

Thanks for helping to assure a future for TLD!

Notice to visitors who came straight to this document from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. Please check out our home page and table of contents.