I want to be a clone

Hollywood's duplication complex started long before Dolly skipped into view, says John Lyttle
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From the column inches devoted to Dolly the sheep, you'd think that until now no one had ever considered "the commercial, moral and cultural implications of cloning". Ah. Hollywood has. As befits a system geared to getting the public to swallow Die Hard, Die Hard 2 and Die Hard with a Vengeance; the same goddamn story three times in a row. Indeed, cloning is the perfect metaphor for contemporary Hollywood itself, hence its nigh-obsessive interest in the pros and cons of duplication.

Not that cloning proper has ever quite paid off at the box office. As Joe Roth, head of Disney Studios, recently opined: "I've never read a cloning script that I wanted to make." But that was before the world said hello Dolly. Now the industry is looking to the summer release of Alien 4: Resurrection in which Sigourney Weaver, disposed of in a vat of molten metal in Alien3, is regenerated from a single rescued skin cell and then separated from the monster embryo she carried in the preceding picture. Advance word suggests that, in keeping with President Clinton's hand wringing, Alien 4 highlights what was submerged in Alien3: the erosion of women's reproductive rights. What price motherhood - even to a monster - when the shadows in white coats have made it quicker by tube? As Alien3 predicted, the issue is control. So small wonder the hills of Beverly are alive with the sound of once discarded scripts being dusted off. Here comes a thriller about nurse who finds that a mysterious "new" patient is actually herself - her future self, sent to replace her, as the robot Maria usurps the place of the real Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Talk about an identity crisis.

Tapping into the Zeitgeist is what Hollywood does best. As is covering all the angles. As the prophetic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) suggests, even "dehumanisation" is in the eye of the beholder. Invasion has been declared dystopian, because for the Homo sapiens "original", doubling-up turns out to be a form of death: the self is not complimented, but displaced. (A notion lifted from twin movies - in The Dark Mirror and A Stolen Life, someone has got to go.) The surface remains the same, but the spark that makes you (supposedly) unique is gone - an indulgence Dr Pretorious, playing God, archly dismisses in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), that early venture into reproduction without sex: "The soul. Can you touch it, smell it?". One imagines many of today's scientific community, in the face of hype and hostility, bursting to quote him, but not daring. Those aid grants, you see.

As the pod people, and Pretorious, with his miniature beings, imply, it's not so much our vaunted spirituality that is offended but our vanity. The imitation of life, on the other hand, views itself as an "advance", an "improvement". Except it's science, not nature, taking the next evolutionary step, a message the Michael Keaton comedy Multiplicity (1996) also subliminally peddles. Adjusting to the stress of contemporary living is what forces Keaton to split into four to cope with work and home, though the cautionary message is that his copycats turn out coarser, camper, dumber and, worse, believe they deserve autonomy - that they are individuals too.

Recognition is what the replicants of Blade Runner (1982) also crave. Cue the slave force scenario beloved of the Left, and watch the clones rebel to demand basic civil rights; rights that must be denied so the idea and ideal of "human" individuality can pass muster. Arguments dismissed as sci-fi piffle then but that in recent weeks have reconstituted as lofty editorial.

These are not questions that overly trouble the men of Stepford, who routinely murder their flesh and blood wives in favour of identical, but wholly passive partners. The Stepford Wives (1975) is less about acting the Deity and - here we circle back to Sigourney and Doc Frankenstein - more about men stealing the role of mother. This theme is explicit in the same year's Embyro, in which Rock Hudson's foetal experimentation is revealed to be a selfish quest for the perfect woman: malleable, in other words. One notes that male knock-offs - see Atomic Man, taken from a single strand of Clark Kent's hair in Superman 4, or the "evil" Superman who emerges from the hero in Superman 3 - tend to have minds, and plans, of their own, "bad" though they might be. Apparently, cloning doesn't tip the "natural" gender balance, but instead reinforces it - not evolutionary but reactionary.

Perhaps Alien 4 will rectify that, as the recent TV movie, The Stepford Husbands, attempts to. Tables turned, the male is artificially bred to give satisfaction the old model can't: Brave New Man. But, as one doubtful character warns, every life begins pure - or, at least, pretty vacant, only to be corrupted by a thousand outside forces. In other words, biology isn't destiny. Experience is. A truism both commercial celluloid and vapourish fourth estate stubbornly fail to address, with the sole, and wholly surprising exception of The Boys of Brazil, a film that blithely allows 94 pubescent Hitlers to go their own way, confident that nurture, social circumstance and fate's fickle ways have as much to do with what makes us what we are as the DNA helix, cloned or otherwise. Merchants of doom and scriptwriters stuck for an ideas, please be advised.