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The 6th Day B-
Year Released: 2000
Arnold Schwarzenegger tends to be at his best when he's the most vulnerable, meaning his character is caught in the typical Cary Grant "Wrong Man" scenario. He's either a loving husband, a working class Joe or a family man whose entire life is turned upside down when he realizes he's not who he thought he was.
This, of course, is the premise of Total Recall, which is arguably one of Arnold's best films. For all his brawn, he was in way over his head competing with information he couldn't really understand. Was this all some sort of fantasy created during his virtual trip to Mars? Was he a double agent whose memory was erased, or is it part of an elaborate fantasy? How did he learn to fight so well?
By placing Arnold in these situations, he's forced to think his way through the series of challenges presented in the form of authority figures that don't believe his unbelievable story or a band of assassins sent to run him off his feet. These movies usually work very well as long as they keep Arnold running, but the moment he turns into a superhero solving all his problems with ammunition and brute strength, they fall apart. Total Recall was a mess once he got to Mars, shooting his way through the enemy mines.
If The 6th Day feels familiar, it's because it's created in the very mold of Total Recall. It's not something I minded very much, since Arnold is very much in his element here.
The production is slick, the action scenes are well shot, Arnold is appropriately baffled as his life falls apart, the supporting cast is filled with strong actors and the moral question ("Am I who I think I am?"), while unsubtle, feels a cut above your standard guns 'n' ammo flick. Familiar, perhaps. Like a well-constructed car, we know how it works, but the ride is enjoyable.
The 6th Day
We're given an opening montage which functions as a portal into the screenwriter's imagination. You can picture writing team Cormac and Marianne Wibberley flipping through the pages of Scientific American taking down notes. Okay, so they cloned a sheep -- insert date here. We can incorporate CNN footage as the politicians deliberate. They cloned a human, but moral questions arose and the experiment was destroyed.
Now, let's consider the possibility of a near future where the cloning of humans is illegal, yet animals can be reconstructed. There are sim-pets which are recreations of the animal which walk, live, breathe and function normally. This comes in especially handy when the family dog passes away and you don't want your eight-year-old daughter to learn about death, especially on your birthday.
Life is good for Adam Gibson (Schwarzenegger) as he grows one year older. Sure, his face is showing a few wrinkles and his muscles might not be as huge as they were 10 years ago, but he lives in a fine suburban home with a loving wife and child. He's got a great job as the pilot of a new hovercraft which sprints atop the mountains with breathtaking speed. This is an Arnold movie, after all -- we need some high octane flight scenes before the pursuit kicks in.
His one weakness is a tendency to do things "the old fashioned way" (like using razor blades instead of those new-fangled computerized laser razors, or whatever the kids are using these days). Okay, his other weakness is smoking illegal secret contraband cigars in his garage. All in all, we like Adam. He's a nice guy. Though he's played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, he could be the fella next door. You know -- the lousy carpenter who's always hammering wood in the garage.
The dog dies, of course. His wife doesn't want to break the news to her when she's celebrating her dad's birthday. We learn that Adam is uncomfortable with the notion of cloning the dog, or the moral questions therein. He buys her a sim-doll instead -- kind of like a Cabbage Patch Kid which speaks, drools, walks around and sleeps. He drives home, heads for the front door fishing the keys out of his pocket and hears someone singing a birthday song.
When he looks through the window, he sees himself. Adam Gibson (Schwarzenegger) blowing out the candles of his birthday cake as the neighbors and friends cheer. His daughter runs into the new Adam's arms. The old Adam has just entered The Twilight Zone, face to face with his doppelganger.
A black van drives up and some official people try to take him away. When the old Adam resists, shots are fired and the chase begins. He hops into his Cadillac and rides off into the night, pursued by these strangers with guns who are seemingly unafraid of their own bodily harm. From here on, The 6th Day follows the old Adam's attempt to figure out what has happened.
The Moral Quandary
Thankfully, the movie doesn't skimp on its premise. There are two versions of Arnold running around. Is the one we follow throughout the story (the "old" Adam) really the original, or is he a clone? When the time comes, would he have it in him to put a bullet into the other Adam running around? What would it take to be able to shoot yourself?
To further the ethical debate, the villain of the film (sleek Tony Goldwyn, who exudes an easy confidence now that he's moved away from playing the sneaky best friend all the time) promotes the idea of cloning to further the scientific goals of mankind -- cloning the sick or the elderly in an attempt to conquer death. It's that God complex which many doctors have.
The Goldwyn character, unlike most villains, seems fairly rational. He's not prone to fits of rage or shouting, instead trying to convince his opponent of the righteousness of what he's doing. His downfall, of course, is his disregard for moral considerations. Suddenly, he's the one deciding who lives and dies.
The Supporting Cast
The entire production looks sharp and clean, an even more skillfully designed corporate future than Total Recall. The chase scenes, fast and furious, have the added layer of villains who keep coming back no matter how many times Arnold kills them. They can always be cloned again. The music is appropriately ethereal during the "ethical debate" scenes, frenetic during the fight and flight sequences.
One of the chief strengths is the supporting cast that surrounds Arnold. Goldwyn makes a formidable foe, the thinking man's villain who, like a canny politician, uses doublespeak as his weapon. He's wonderfully placid and confident.
Michael Rooker is nicely typecast as his hitman, especially when convincing the authorities that his team isn't really dead. A guy's neck has been broken, but Rooker is wonderfully fussy as he shakes his head saying, "No -- the pulse is still strong!"
Sarah Wynter also makes a strong impression as his vicious bad-girl cohort. Likable puppy dog actor Michael Rapaport also puts in an appearance as Arnold's big-hearted buddy who adds a much needed touch of warmth and humor to the hard driving action (which works much better than Arnold's token, distracting one-liners.)
Robert Duvall is given the thankless role of the thoughtful scientist who is in part responsible for the cloning, yet he fills every moment with his usual layers. Only an actor as fine as he can sell the line, "My dear, what would I do without you?" to his dying wife and make it more than melodrama? The small, self-conscious smile after he says the line adds a layer which goes beyond the script. It's a stock character as performed by one of the finest actors working today, always in the moment and believable.
The machine runs smooth, clean and strong for its running time. Unfortunately, it falls into the trappings which soiled the conclusion of Total Recall. I've never found it easy to believe that our hero could storm his way through a corporate enterprise of villains. In this film, it's altogether too easy for Adam Gibson to sneak into a well-guarded building, armed and dangerous.
Just as silly is a scene where another main character clearly places himself in danger when he would obviously be too sensible to go about it in that way. The screenwriter's contrivance (as Goldwyn moves in for the kill) undermines the logic of the film, insults the intelligence of the actor, character and audience, and furthermore isn't a particularly well-written moment. People just don't place themselves into situations like that.
The final 20 minutes of action are difficult to swallow, since we've already established Adam Gibson as an everyman (even if he's a pilot and war veteran) and not a superhero. Of course, because he's Arnold we've come to expect that he can do anything. Action movies need to either get out of this Rambo syndrome or create heroes which could believably storm an enemy guarded building, a la The Matrix.
Peppered throughout the film are Arnold's ludicrous one-liners, many of which undermine the tension of the film. He's as credible an action hero as Charlton Heston, but his jokes tend to take me out of the drama and remind me that this is an "Arnold" movie. The jokes weren't as bad, though, as those distracting computer-generated screen wipes that separate numerous scenes. In five years, those wipes will be dated and glaring.
Finally, for all its strengths, studio films such as The 6th Day always take the easy way out when their hero is placed in a moral quandary. Face/Off did the same thing. They never offer some bizarre twist at the end that would force the character or audience to reconsider their values, or place them in a challenging ethical dilemma.
What if the protagonist did not make it through in quite the way we expected? It's only in smaller films such as The Hidden, which get in under the radar, that we're left with something resonant. The 6th Day poses fascinating questions only to wrap them up all too neatly in the final scenes.
We're not talking Thoreau or Bertrand Russell here, but give the audience something to chew on and you'll have a great movie on your hands. Think about the final image of Planet of the Apes (to go back to action hero Charlton Heston for a moment) or even the bittersweet moment at the finale of Arnold's own Terminator.
It's possible to make a studio film that moves beyond the safe and familiar. Ultimately, those are the movies which audiences tend to really connect with. Out of bold ideas, classics are born. As it stands, The 6th Day is a serviceable, enjoyable, well-constructed movie, but one can easily see how it could have been so much more.
Review published 12.08.2000.
For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.
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