Monday, January 31, 2011

What's in a name: Adam Gibson

Son of gib: cloned man, cloned cat
Adam Gibson - The name of the clone protagonist of The 6th Day. In a future where cloned pets can be purchased at shopping malls but human cloning is illegal, clone Adam is accidentally created after the original Adam is mistakenly presumed dead. Both Adams work together to prevent one of them from being killed by the corporation trying to conceal its mistake.

The name "Adam" begs association with the biblical first man, and clone Adam is a first as well — the first human clone who is allowed to live during the lifetime of his template. (Not coincidentally, the cloning occurs on original Adam’s birthday, which therefore becomes clone Adam’s birthday as well.)

"Gibson," or "son of Gib" implies "son of cat," as Merriam-Webster defines "gib" as "a male cat." The technology that was perfected in the cloning of animals (like the cloned pet cat given to Adam’s daughter) has given birth to the technology used to clone Adam. The cloned cat, then, is the predecessor or "parent" of the cloned human.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Schwarzenegger's identity crisis

Arnold Schwarzenegger's career has been one of reinvention: champion bodybuilder, Hollywood movie star, governor of California. Is it coincidence, then, that so many of his films have been concerned with the notion of identity? Here's a look at some of his notable identity-challenged roles.

The Running Man: Identity determined by television
The Running Man (1987)
Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a cop in a bleak dystopian future of martial law. When Ben refuses to fire on unarmed civilians, he is turned over to the state-controlled television network's nightly game show, "The Running Man," in which colorfully costumed "stalkers" hunt down and execute supposedly felonious contestants. Ben is dubbed the "Butcher of Bakersfield" and redefined as a savage killer via deceptively edited surveillance footage. In order to reclaim his identity, Ben must not only survive the game, but commandeer the airwaves and broadcast the truth.

Total Recall: Facing the past
Total Recall (1990)
As Doug Quaid, Schwarzenegger plays an average Joe plagued by recurring nightmares about Mars. Desperate to understand the dreams, he attempts to have artificial memories of a vacation on the Red Planet implanted in his brain. After a mishap during the implant procedure, repressed memories apparently resurface and Doug becomes convinced that he is in fact a secret agent on a mission to expose the corrupt administrator of a Martian mining settlement. Pursued by assassins, he travels to Mars in order to learn the truth about his past, and to choose who he will be in the future.

True Lies: A secret life exposed
True Lies (1994)
Schwarzenegger's Harry Tasker is an operative for a top-secret government spy agency, an occupation he has hidden from his wife and daughter, who both think he is a humdrum computer salesman. When Harry suspects his wife is having an affair, he concocts an elaborate scheme to learn the truth and reignite his wife's interest in their marriage. Worlds collide when his plan is interrupted by terrorists who abduct the couple and expose Harry's life as a spy. While his wife attempts to comprehend the truth about Harry, the two must work together to foil the terrorists' deadly plans.

Eraser: Creating a new identity
Eraser (1996)
Schwarzenegger plays John Kruger, a US Marshal with the Witness Protection Program charged with safeguarding the key witness in the trial against a defense corporation accused of treason. To keep her safe, Kruger must "erase" the witness' previous identity and establish a new one. When corruption is uncovered within the protection program, Kruger must take extreme measures to protect himself as well.

The 6th Day: Adam and his clone
The 6th Day (2000)
As Adam Gibson, Schwarzenegger plays a charter pilot who is mistakenly cloned and who becomes the target of corporate killers wanting to cover up the illegal mistake. Adam enlists the help of his clone in order to confront the corporation responsible for the error and the attempts on his life, though he soon discovers that his true identity is even more complicated than he expected.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

What's in a name: Liberty Valance and Ransom Stoddard

James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard,
Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance
Liberty Valance - An outlaw for hire who terrorizes the small frontier town of Shinbone, Liberty attempts to intimidate settlers into voting against statehood in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Ransom Stoddard - An educated man from back East, Ransom hopes to bring law and order to the West. He favors statehood as a way to protect settlers from unscrupulous ranchers.

Bad guy Liberty's name sounds positive, but the "liberty" he represents is unrestrained and unmediated freedom. Valance acts on his every whim and impulse, however violent, provided it doesn't interfere with his own liberty, regardless of how it affects others.

One of the definitions for "ransom" given by Merriam-Webster is "to deliver especially from sin or its penalty." Ransom Stoddard certainly provides (at least by appearances) a deliverance from evil (evil in the form of Valance), but also represents the "captivity" (to use words suggested by "ransom" or "holding ransom") of the freedoms we yield to the law in order to sustain a peaceful society. The killing of Liberty by Ransom (albeit in perception only) is symbolic of this giving up of unrestrained personal freedom for the common good.

See also: Great Showdowns: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tron: Legacy

Beau Garrett as Gem and Garrett Hedlund
as Sam in Tron: Legacy
In the original Tron, video game programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is unwillingly transported to "the grid" — a virtual world representing a corporation's computer network. Flynn needs not only to escape, but to recover evidence that proves his work has been stolen by a corrupt CEO (played by consummate baddie David Warner). Flynn succeeds, returns from the digital world, and becomes head of the company. Tron: Legacy picks up years later, as Flynn (once again played by Jeff Bridges) returns to the grid and becomes trapped by an anthropomorphic computer program named Clu, which was created by Flynn and tasked with perfecting the virtual world. Flynn is subsequently presumed dead by the outside world, until his son Sam, a young boy at the time of his father's supposed demise, now a man of 27, is sucked into the grid himself. After finding his dad, the two must figure a way out.

This time, however, the threat is greater than loss of intellectual property. According to Flynn, any attempt to escape the grid would give Clu a chance to escape as well. Should Clu succeed in doing so, the results would be catastrophic to the real world. We're never told what kind of threat Clu poses, nor is it explained what kind of transformation would occur should a program enter the real world, whether it would retain its digital construction in the same way Sam (who at one point is shown bleeding during one of the gladiatorial games staged by Clu) appears to retain his organic physicality in the grid, or be converted to a biological entity, thereby losing any digital traits that would prove a threat or benefit to our world. Such questions are ignored in this film, as are explanations as to how Flynn and Sam were digitized in the first place. The emphasis here is on visual action and imaginative adventure, much in the same manner of the original Tron or another of Disney's "science fantasy" films, The Black Hole (glimpsed early in Tron: Legacy on a poster in young Sam's bedroom).

The father and son relationships, not only between Flynn and Sam, but between Flynn and his other self-styled creation, Clu, at times suggest something deeper at work, even if nothing substantial surfaces. The shots of Clu addressing his digital followers recall Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi films, but also Apple Computer's famous "1984" ad, and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs himself. Though look beyond these superficial likenesses and not much comes into focus. Is it technology that's oppressive, or just the pursuit of perfection? Are we becoming more and more dehumanized as we put more and more of ourselves onto our own "grids," our own virtual worlds of Facebook, Twitter, et al.? It's unclear if the film is making any such assertions, but in the end, as in the original, it feels as if it probably wasn't intended to.

Tron: Legacy owes something to the original film, of course, but also to the Matrix films, which owe a fair share to the original Tron themselves. The super-slick visuals, beautifully stylish virtual-world avatars (Olivia Wilde as Quorra and Beau Garrett as Gem are particularly striking), and impossibly acrobatic slow motion fight shots recall the virtual world of the Wachowskis' films, even as those films recall the virtual world concept of Tron. Quorra is very much like Trinity, and Michael Sheen's Castor — the proprietor of a chic nightclub whom Sam must seek out in order to find the way off the grid — echoes Lambert Wilson's turn as the Merovingian. It's as if Tron had been re-processed by the Wachowskis and came out The Matrix, and Tron: Legacy, in turn, is reaping the rewards of its own influence.

Most like The Matrix are the simultaneous feelings of triumph and (perhaps unintended) uncertainty at the film's end. Sam is told that he will be able to change the world — the real world — once he returns, much in the same way we expect Neo to change the relationship between the real world and the Matrix. In the end, however, we're left wondering just how Sam will do so, or if he really needs to at all.