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B-grade thriller sparks controversy: Hollywood tackles cloning again

By Michael Cook - posted Wednesday, 21 July 2004

'Tis the season of pseudo-science in Hollywood. First we had the greenhouse effect on steroids in The Day After Tomorrow. And now there’s Godsend, a thriller about human cloning.

Or rather, “thriller” according to the publicity blurbs. In fact, Godsend is god-awful.

Robert De Niro plays a prestigious but obsessed IVF doctor who takes a cloned embryo from a Petri dish and places it in the womb of an hysterical mum. She wants to replace the eight-year-old son she lost in a car smash. The kid looks the same, but creepy things begin to happen. It’s a bit like The Omen without the really scary bits.


A geeky friend in Singapore sent me a pirate copy not long ago. But it turned out that the film was so boring that the pirate fell asleep in the picture theatre and my eagerly-awaited copy had a 10-minute gap where his camcorder had failed. “It doesn’t make any difference,” said my friend -- and he was right.

But astonishingly, this bomb ignited a huge controversy in the United States.

Why? Because it might make audiences think twice about the wisdom of cloning embryos to cure diseases. And this scenario broke the First Commandment of embryo research: “Thou shalt not hint that cloning an embryo for a grieving mother is exactly the same as cloning an embryo for an ailing diabetes patient.”

So a squadron of critics was dispatched to drop stuff on Godsend from a great height.

The world’s leading science journal, Nature, coaxed Godsend’s scriptwriter into abject self-criticism: “It would mortify me if it was used to condemn stem cell research.” Nobel laureate Harold Varmus denounced it in The New York Times for blurring the boundary “between the plausible and the implausible”.

The best-known bioethicist in the US, Arthur Caplan, sputtered: “Thanks, Hollywood. Just as people were beginning to understand cloning, you have put greed before need and made a movie that risks keeping ordinary Americans afraid and patients paralysed and immobile for many more years.”


The scientists are right about one thing. Godsend’s science is largely mumbo-jumbo and hocus-pocus. Its confusing plot (the industry gossip is that the production team wrote several endings and chose the worst one) turns on the fact that the clone has been given memories of another dead child. It’s fantasy and Caplan & Co must see us as utter numbskulls if they think that we’ll swallow it.

But, like all science fiction, Godsend does convey some higher truths.

The most trenchant of these is that scientists’ arguments for cloning are often morally incoherent. At one point the husband reproaches De Niro’s character for having undertaken the project. And the doctor responds, “If I’m not supposed to do this, then how is it that I am?”

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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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