Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bioethics and "The Island"

Like most of America, you probably haven't seen Michael Bay's The Island (2005), starting Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. It's not a cinematographic masterpiece. It is downright goofy in spots, there is a lot of stuff blowing up (this is the team that brought us Transformers and Armageddon, after all), and it has the most intrusive product placement I've ever seen in a movie. But if you're interested in bioethics, and particularly if you're interested in how the mass media depicts biotech, you should get your hands on the DVD. If you teach bioethics, the film could provide a nice springboard for discussion. Plus, for the first third or so, it's got Steve Buscemi, which is always a plus in my book.

The film is set in the not-too-far-distant future, in a prisonlike facility that (we are told) is one of only two safe places left on the planet following The Contamination. It's a highly regulated environment, in which individuals' sleep, diet, and bodily functions are monitored 24x7. "Proximity rules"--men and women aren't allowed to get too close--and other regulations are enforced by omnipresent security guards. The other safe place on the planet is The Island--a beautiful tropical paradise that has somehow escaped contagion. It is the dream of everyone in the place to go there. The only way to get a ticket is to win the lottery.

Our hero, Lincoln Six-Echo, is a nonconformist in an environment that requires absolute compliance. He breaks out of the facility, briefly, only to discover the truth: he and his compatriots are being used as biological raw materials -- "insurance policies" -- for the rich and famous in the outside (uncontaminated!) world. The supposed lottery "winners" aren't really winners after all. You can imagine, probably, how the action bits of the story unfold from this point.

There are lots and lots of interesting themes at work here, among them:
  • The use of a public-health threat to control a population
  • The creation of clones to serve as a source of transplant organs
  • The creation of clones to serve as gestational carriers
  • What makes clones different from humans (if anything), and what makes humans "persons" (in the philosophical sense of "one of us")--there is a great scene in which Steve Buscemi tries to explain to McGregor and Johansson that they're not like him
  • The role of medical personnel in this operation--should physicians and nurses participate in this kind of thing?
  • How language frames our ability to discern right from wrong (to their creators and their customers, the clones are "insurance policies," "products," or "Agnates"--not clones, not individuals, and certainly not people)
  • How visual images shape our ethical intuitions--some very graphic depictions of how the clones develop and are "extracted," how they are treated by medical professionals and guards
  • What it might mean that this film was released in 2005, as the stem-cell debate was heating up in the US
  • Clones as human chattel, and connections with slavery (or sex trafficking, though the latter is not part of the film)
It might also be interesting to consider similarities to (and differences from) other media depictions of cloning and organ-harvesting. Oryx & Crake, Never Let Me Go, and Coma (also a 1978 movie) come to mind, but there are lots more out there.

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