Friday, December 12, 2008

Movie Review: The Island

(Warning, Spoilers Ahead!)

The Island (2005) is a dystopian science fiction film set in the near future. Its protagonists, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johanssen) believe they are residents of a facility containing the last humans uncontaminated by a planet spanning disaster. Residents of their facility look forward to being chosen to go to ‘the island,’ the last uncontaminated place left on earth. After Lincoln discovers an insect within the bowels of the facility, he becomes suspicious about the story of contamination. When Lincoln’s friend Jordan Two Delta is chosen to go to the Island, Lincoln travels to the upper story of the facility. Lincoln witnesses the harvesting of organs from another ‘winner’ (Michael Clarke Duncan) and decides to rescue Jordan. When the two escape, they find James McCord (Steve Buscemi), whom they assumed was a colonist at the facility. McCord explains that Lincoln and Jordan are clones, and that their bodies are used to harvest organs. The rest of the world is led to believe that the clones are in a persistent vegetative state, but the clones were unable to survive without lives of their own. Lincoln and Jordan now must try to escape and bring down the facility. That’s the smallest amount I could give away before getting to the good part; the science.

The most obvious assumption that this movie makes is that cloning to adulthood is possible. Some form of fast development is achieved. This ignores the current scientific opinion. According to this article, “Nuclear cloning prevents the proper reprogramming of the clone's genome, which is a prerequisite for the development of an embryo into a normal organism. It is unlikely that these biologic barriers to normal development can be overcome in the foreseeable future.” While it’s still plausible in a science fiction sense to include human cloning in the movie, the fact that they did it without a nod to overcoming epigenetics just isn’t cool. The problem of methylation is one scientists think unsolveable. That makes the cloning that happens in this movie pretty much impossible. Strike one against The Island.

Something that always struck me as wasteful in The Island is that they grow an entire clone just to harvest one organ from it. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could just clone the organ by itself and be done with it? Guess what: They Can. Early this year, scientists at the University of Minnesota created a beating heart in a tank using stem cells. They took a working heart and killed the cells, leaving behind a protein matrix. They then introduced stem cells into that matrix. After a few days, they got hearts that pumped. Freaky, no? There you have it. No muss, no fuss. You don’t have to waste a person and deal with all the cover up. Strike two against The Island.

Putting aside the fact that it’s inefficient to clone whole humans (though cloning humans to adulthood seems to be impossible too), Lincoln and Jordan had dreams about their natural-born counterparts. When they realize what they are, they are led to wonder if they somehow less human because they’re clones. The correct scientific answer for adult human clones is no. A clone is a genetic copy of an individual. What else is a genetic copy of an individual? An identical twin. Thus, clones are like twins separated by time. Some twins claim that they can feel what the other twin is thinking, but that is probably because most identical twins spend inordinate amounts of time together. Thus, realistically, the dreams of past memories probably wouldn’t occur.

Once again, proper science gets in the way of telling a good story. The island is a good movie, but if you’re bothered by incorrect science, don’t see it.

Science rating: 2/10

Notes Page:

The first paragraph, starting with “The Island” and ending with “the science” is paraphrased from The Island.
The quote starting with “Nuclear cloning prevents” is quoted from Jaenisch.
The sentences beginning with “Early this year” and ending with “pumped” is paraphrased from Ott, et al.
The sentences beginning with “The correct scientific answer” and ending with “by time” are paraphrased from Dawkins.

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