The biggest wonder about the new Arnold Schwarzenegger ride is not that human cloning has become a reality, nor that the America of the future ("sooner than you think," as an opening caption ominously suggests) very closely resembles present-day Vancouver. It's not even that technological advances appear to have added pleasure, comfort and convenience to people's lives, rather than merely convoluting and cluttering them. Beyond the sleek surface trappings and the well-wrought script by Cormac and Marianne Wibberly, the delight of this awesome thriller is simply that Schwarzenegger -- an old hand at this sort of running-around-shooting-henchmen thing -- could easily sleepwalk through the movie...but he doesn't.
Somewhat like a cross between a mind-bending Philip K. Dick story (without the private dick) and a hopped-up Paul Verhoeven movie (sans bloodlust), The 6th Day is brought to the screen by Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) as an unlikely and entirely welcome blend of humor, action, moral debate and social satire. It's also one of the best X-Files episodes to come along since that series relocated to shoot among the palm trees of Southern California. Laced with creepiness, yet focused upon humanity, its essence is ultimately pure Arnold: Immersed in true lies, the barbarian destroyer gets a raw deal, losing total recall and becoming the last action hero, and -- as a villain, a commando and a predator all attempt to terminate him -- the running man jingles all the way to a red heat at the end of days. More or less.
Actually, this time around Schwarzenegger plays Adam Gibson, a buff daddy and decorated fighter pilot from the "Rainforest War" (not too far-fetched if one considers Vancouver Island's ravaged Clayoquat Sound). His old-fashioned tendencies -- he shuns the "laser-razor," preferring to nick himself with a blade -- are about to be put to the test. Once a little extreme football (reminiscent of Starship Troopers) and a series of nifty gadgets (bathroom-mirror Internet television) set the scene, we learn that the none-too-subtly named Adam adores his daughter, Clara (Taylor Anne Reid), and smart wife, Natalie (Wendy Crewson), despite the latter's insistence that he visit the Re-Pet company and purchase a tailor-made clone of their beloved family dog. ("No use fighting," cajoles a female associate. "We always win.") Releasing his frustrations by flying wild, jet-propelled "Whispercraft" choppers through snowy canyons with his good-natured partner, Hank (Michael Rapaport), Adam seems to have struck a perfect balance in a brave new world.
But to move a story, things gotta go awry, so once Adam deigns to purchase a grotesque and hilarious "Sim-Pal" doll for Clara, he returns home to a surprise birthday party for himself...at which he is already present. Cue the Twilight Zone theme as a punkette named Talia (Sarah Winter) and thugs named Vincent (Terry Crews) and Wiley (Rod Rowland) attempt to erase him, acting on the orders of Marshall (Michael Rooker), their malevolent supervisor. One wrecked classic Cadillac, one literal cliffhanger and countless phaser blasts later, Adam puts his lives in perspective: Somehow, during routine drug-and-alcohol and vision tests, his genes and memories were stolen, and he was cloned. Now his clone is smooching his wife, the assassins on his tail are virtually indestructible (even if he snaps their necks they can be replicated, which could explain pop music's current waves of spiteful youth) and, as smoking has finally become illegal, he can't even pause for a moment of reflection with a comforting stogie.
What's nice about The 6th Day is that it's not ashamed of its blatant reassembly of familiar elements, mostly lifted from Verhoeven's Robocop and Total Recall, with a dash of Cronenberg and some Blue Thunder thrown in for spice. Because the script is confident -- barring the somewhat sluggish final showdown -- it weaves its elements together to create an inventive movie that stands on its own. The writers also understand the scientific arguments they're juggling; as veteran sci-fi producer Jon Davison has put it: "This is a cautionary tale not of evil science, but of the evil uses of science." In a world where the cheapest, easiest, quickest fix is often what people crave, this level-headed approach affords the film a mature sensibility to accompany its mind-bending concepts. Think of it as The Matrix for adults.
Not that the story is without its share of horror. Once Adam infiltrates the organization responsible for cloning humans (chillingly, part of their plan is to warm the general populace to the idea with the pet clones), the evil takes human form (sort of) as multimillionaire misanthrope Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn). Unmoved by the misery of his top scientist, Griffin Weir (Robert Duvall), Drucker is such a strong proponent of cloning that he keeps a tank full of gruesome "blanks" on hand, ready to clone anyone he chooses, even against their will. Unmoved by the preciousness of life, by the sweet sadness of mortality, this swine is a perfect foil for Adam's unwavering support of the "6th Day Law," named after the Creator's big experiment with us mostly hairless bipeds.
Wisely sidestepping theology and sermonizing (apart from Drucker's delusions of immortalizing Mozart and Martin Luther King), the story unspools like a contemporary Frankenstein: Here we have the monster; man made the monster; now what's man planning to do about it? A very entertaining spectrum of technological advancements make this near future instantly recognizable and, in a world possibly enhanced by virtual lovers, yet still festering with Hummers, SUVs and minivans, the themes cut very close to home. The movie's science is basically a flip through Omni, but its heart has more to do with the Constitution, which is why it works so well.
It's easy to complain that there's just no way Schwarzenegger could come across as a regular Joe, but look again; his comedy movies have given him a surprisingly jocular edge. While this role is a far cry from the badly dubbed debut of "Arnold Strong" in Hercules in New York thirty years ago, it is, in its way, equally charming.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.