by David Cornelius
Before Michael bay took us to the Island, Robert S. Fiveson took us to America.For those who haven’t heard, Bay’s “The Island,” an amalgam of plot points and styles lifted from the chilliest of 1970s dystopian sci-fi (“Logan’s Run,” “THX-1138,” etc.), borrowed most of its set-up from a little known 1979 effort, “Parts: The Clonus Horror.” The film, also known under the more simple title of “Clonus,” may sound familiar to those of you who recently took a trip to the multiplex to check out Bay’s work: a group of happy-go-lucky types live out their lives in a strange society, under the watchful eye of scientists and “guides” who promise them the ultimate goal, a trip to “America,” a land of endless prosperity and happiness. Turns out the trips to America involve getting shoved in a plastic bag, pumped full of chemicals, and stored in a basement. It also turns out that these happy-go-lucky types are actually clones being harvested for their parts by the wealthy and the powerful. Our hero makes this dreadful discovery and attempts an escape.
"Features all the good - and all the bad - of 70s sci-fi cheese."
The difference, you recent multiplexers may have noticed, is that Michael Bay got Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, while Robert Fiveson and his co-producer Mryl Schreibman got Peter Graves and the guy from “Toolbox Murders.”
(Then again, Bay had a budget somewhere around 475 times larger than Fiveson’s, so it’s understandable why you see Fiveson casting, say, not one but two guys who were on “V.”)
Anyway. “Clonus.” Prior to “The Island,” the film’s only claim to fame, aside from minor cult status, was that it once popped up on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Which brings me to my problem with the film: I really like it, but I also know it’s pretty much crap.
My liking it stems from my fondness for 70s sci-fi - I dig the bleak outlooks, the dreary societies, the sleek set designs. Before “Star Wars” came along and cheered everybody up, science fiction in the 1970s was a nasty, brooding, cynical place to be. My kind of place. And although “Clonus” didn’t get made until after “Star Wars,” its roots remain in the same dark corner where “Rollerball” and “Soylent Green” sprung to life.
So my fondness keeps me on the lookout for the good stuff in a movie like this. And there’s plenty of good stuff there, if you’re willing to wade through cheesy acting, an undercooked screenplay, and low-rent production values that ask us to believe a California community college is actually a cloning farm.
As with most sci-fi that doesn’t quite make the grade, most of the “good stuff” in “Clonus” comes in idea form. The basic premise of the story is a clever one, especially when you factor in how the screenplay (by Fiveson, co-producer Myrl Schreibman, Ron Smith, and Bob Sullivan, who’s credited with creating the original story) doles out the information. The mystery takes its time in revealing itself, dishing us information piece by piece. We understand that they’re clones early on, thanks to footage of lab-coated Dick Sargent (!) and Zale Kessler constantly surrounding surveillance monitors and grumbling to themselves about the project. But it take a while before we get the full picture. Is this the future? Is this the present? Where are all those Ziplocked bodies going? What’s with everybody being so darn stupid?
Ah, that last one, the stupid thing. It’s another of the film’s good ideas. We’re told that genetic tampering with the clones keep their mental development nice and slow. This creates a good deal of creepiness, as we try to interpret the characters’ childlike behaviors. (And that blinking! A nifty effect has all the clones blinking slower than usual, just enough to throw the viewer off guard, to inform us that something’s a bit off kilter here.)
Finally, Fiveson’s best asset here is his knack for visual flair. Making the most out of so little, Fiveson whips up some truly unsettling images. The corpse-like clones, sealed up in clear bags and awaiting their destiny, is the film’s most indelible sight, but let’s not ignore such moments as the hero’s ultra-disturbing dream sequence (which blends corpses, lobotomies, and lots of running) or the majestic shot of his triumphant escape from Clonus, in which he stands atop a cliff, looking downward on a small town (America!) and an uncertain future.
Needless to say, there’s a reason the MST3K gang tackled this one: the film collapses in its second half. With nowhere else to go, no eerie otherness to build mystery, the story gets stuck in suburban California, with our hero stumbling upon his source DNA - a guy who just happens to be the brother of the leading candidate for president. The rest is a conspiracy mishmash that involves a whole heap of footage of Peter Graves either looking concerned or beating the crap out of somebody. It’s a letdown from the movie’s opening scene, in which Graves delivers a campaign speech that’s nothing but vague, empty rhetoric, a nifty commentary on politics; sadly, such nifty commentary is replaced by bland sequences like the one in which the brother goes to Graves to tell him about the Clonus secret - would anybody actually be surprised when Graves announces that he not only knows about it, but is involved in it?
It’s in this sloppy second half where the bad acting really comes out to play, punctuated by a few real laugh-out-loud moments of B movie cheese. And what a shame. Here’s a movie that could have done so much with its notions on psychological conditioning (all the screenplay can figure out what to do with this theme is to have the hero yearn to return to Clonus, despite its dangers, because it’s the only home he’s ever known) and the dangers of a society controlled by the wealthy (Graves gets out a few hokey speeches, but it’s not nearly enough).So no, it’s not a good movie at all, despite some dynamite moments sprinkled throughout. And yet I like the damn thing anyway. It’s one of those films that gets to my soft spot while failing to actually be well made. Would I recommend it to anyone? Well, probably not - at least, not without an oversized caveat about my weird-ass tastes. But then, maybe you share my weird-ass tastes. In which case, feel free to throw caution to the wind, laugh in Michael Bay’s face, and plan your trip to America.
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originally posted: 07/25/05 15:20:37