Two Arnolds are too much by anyone’s count. I confess that just the thought of seeing Himself act with Hisotherself is enough to make me a little nervous, and I have a much higher tolerance for things Schwarzeneggerian than most people I know. Still, there are reasons to see The 6th Day, and not all of them concern special effected explosions and high tech gadgetry, though these are the most obvious crass appeals. In fact, the film so almost-works that it’s frustrating to watch it peter out in the particular ways that it does.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The 6th Day‘s greatest asset is also its greatest liability Schwarzenegger. He has a lot to measure up to, and given that he’s not about to do “stretch” roles of the sort that Sly Stallone has successfully essayed lately (in Copland or Get Carter), he’s doing the same thing again and again. Though he long ago established his function on the planet (Hollywood and elsewhere) as a great, big, mostly impressive fiction, self-repeating and (apparently) self-entertaining, it’s become quite clear over the years that this function has its limits. Larger than most life, married to Maria, and charming in his grotesque, grimacey-grinny way, Schwarzenegger deploys formula to perpetuate his image and clout. This means that you know what to expect in a post original-Terminator Schwarzenegger flick: he’s underdogged in most unlikely ways (he’s a little too powerful-looking ever to appear vulnerable, and yet, he plays that role again and again), he makes admirable moral choices, and he always wins the day. Always (even when he dies, as in T2 or End of Days, he wins the day—it must be contractual).
Increasingly, Arnold has taken this formula to an extreme that would have seemed silly a few years ago. Now his military hammerhead characters have turned domestic; they’ve become good husband-fathers. In his comedies this familial status is a joke, as in, look at that king-sized, muscular man surrounded by a swarm of little kids (Kindergarten Cop), chasing toys in a mall (Jingle All the Way), or heaven forfend! pregnant and falling in love with Emma Thompson (Junior). In the action pictures, his marriage and fatherhood tend to provide personal reasons for him to save the world: so, in True Lies, Total Recall, even, to an extent, End of Days, Arnold is posited as the husband-dad everyone might want to have, kind-hearted and yet completely able to handle any massive weaponry or need-for-neck-breaking that comes his way.
In the new movie co-produced by Schwarzenegger, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, and written by husband-wife team Cormac and Marianne Wibberley (their first produced screenplay) Arnold plays another of these incongruously hapless and super-skilled fellows, Adam (a name that become more odious as the film progresses) Gibson. Adam’s an ex fighter-pilot, decorated (no doubt by the “right” side) during the Rainforest War,” and now married to the lovely Natalie (Wendy Crewson), with whom he has an adorably precocious daughter, Clara (Taylor-Anne Reid). The set-up is so straight-out-of Total Recall (including a pleasant workday-morning bedroom scene with the wife, not quite so sexed up as the one with Sharon Stone) or True Lies (the daughter looks like a kinder, gentler version of Eliza Dushku, who appropriately grew up to be Faith on Buffy) that you might be forgiven for thinking The 6th Day is just ripping off previous Arnold films. It sort of does, but in a way that might be understood as commenting on the excesses, self-delusions, and redundancies of commercial culture generally, and of that culture embodied and practiced by Arnold particularly. That is, it comments on copies.
In case you haven’t seen a trailer on tv or elsewhere, The 6th Day is about cloning. And as a metaphor for consumption, affluence, and thoughtlessness, cloning actually works very well. The movie’s setting in the near-future borders on clever, in that the memory of Dolly the Sheep looms just large enough to make audience members at once uncomfortable and in-the-know (perhaps even familiar with the broad outlines of the moral and legal debates over cloning). In the film, the cloning of humans has been outlawed (apparently an experiment that went wrong left a very nasty taste in folks’ mouths) and so, inevitably, a supersecret black market in such technologies exists. The chief architect of this not-quite-underground is a brash young mogul-type named Drucker (Tony Goldwyn), who covers his tracks with a commercially successful animal cloning business called Re-Pet. The cloning is based on some preposterous process developed by the kindly Dr. Weir (Robert Duvall). In this process, “blanks,” or un-coded forms (of cats, dogs, humans) are kept floating in clear-gel vats until someone’s DNA is secured, at which point a blank is pulled up, shot through with genetic info and imprinted with memories (via the eyeball-gizmo you see in the movie posters), then resolved into the clone. Until Adam accidentally steps into the fray, these clones are all copies of dead (or fast-dying) people: Drucker uses the process to keep himself alive as his own legacy-maker and -receiver: who needs progeny (and potential litigation) when you have yourself to look after your empire, presumably forever?
This can of worms is lively, no doubt. Add to it the usual action-movie smorgasbord of car chases, endangered family members, and shootouts, and the whole shebang starts to look promising part big-screen fx-ed fun, part provocative sf. Unfortunately, The 6th Day gets caught up in the former to the detriment of the latter, which means that its probing of socio-political and ethical issues remains superficial. Still, the issues themselves are fairly compelling, ranging from big (loss of individuality in mass culture, collapsing distinctions between humans and machines or between life and death) and smaller ones (copy degeneration, typecasting, the pointlessness of car chases in an aging-Arnold movie, or the dreariness of the dead-meat sidekick, here played by Michael Rapaport). The necessary leap of faith and it’s a big one concerns your investment in Arnold/Adam’s plight. You need to commit, not to the idea that he could be you Arnold will never be an Everyperson but that he could be himself.
This is a scary thought. And it evolves like so: Adam discovers that he’s been cloned as part of an elaborate scheme to hide a murder-and-cloning, and that he must be murdered in turn, to cover up his own cloning. His would-be killers Marshall (Michael Rooker), Talia (Sarah Wynter), and Wiley (Rod Rowland, who looks rather like an imperfect clone of Stephen Dorff) are all clones themselves because, being professional thugs and assassins, they’re prone to die on the job (and it’s expensive to be cloned, something like $1.2 million per process, which makes them valuable assets, at least to Drucker, who pays the tab). Still, they blithely accept such hazzards as routine (though Wiley offers some colorful commentary on his ghost-pains, left over from a broken neck and being run over by large vehicles), embodying a very materialistic and practical ethos, sans any belief in the “sanctity” of human life or individual souls Talia is upset on one of her reawakenings to learn that she has to re-do her hair.
Of course, the stakes are somewhat different for Adam, as he comes face to face with his other self, even watches as the amorous clone (who doesn’t know he’s a clone) engages in intimate contact with Natalie, in the back seat of the car, no less. When Adams 1 and 2 do meet, they’re both such decent selves that they agree to fight back their mutual enemies. Their alliance lets them off several moral hooks, mainly, as Adam’s Sidekick points out when Adam 1 plans to shoot Adam 2, that such violence would “technically be suicide.” But more importantly, they’re deemed equally human and worthy men, not always a popular view in movies that address this topic.
Their alliance also means the Adams have to share a couple of scenes one or two on fairly intimate terms, which is to say that Arnold is seriously working at acting, with himself. Or more precisely, with a blue screen digitally rigged to look like himself. Even with the basic blankness the Adams tend to affect as facial expressions (except of course, when they make efforts to laugh or scowl, both resulting in something approximating pain), they both look pretty great (Arnold’s face is one of those fortunate genetically determined structures that looks better as he gets older). Whether you read them as glossy surfaces or emblems of cultural crises, together or apart, the Adams can’t help but raise perplexing questions about self-knowledge, self-interest, and self-awareness all of which Arnold appears to have in spades.