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Will Smith and doppelganger, Gemini Man

Gemini Man: clone alone

Image credit: Capital Pictures, Paramount, Landmark Media

Are you ever alone when you have your cloned self chasing you down?

Films involving people being hunted down are nothing new. The hunters are typically out for bounty or revenge, or perhaps part of some sinister governmental or corporate plot. Of course they could also be aliens, robots from the future, dinosaurs – it’s a long list. What sets ‘Gemini Man’ apart, though, is that the person who is hunting down Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is in fact himself (also played by Will Smith).

The cinematic wizardry here is pioneering. Director Ang Lee has a track record with ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Life of Pi’ of introducing cutting-edge cinematography, so it is no surprise he is behind this latest innovation. Rather than shoot Will Smith playing both roles and then give him a digital makeover to remove the signs of ageing on his younger self, this younger version is in fact completely computer-generated. It is a staggering achievement visually and you could argue that Smith, now all his data is in the can, could carry on his film career without ever acting again. Effectively he has his digital twin – yet another new spin under this headline.

Such film tech is very interesting, but we are turning our attention to med tech and, more particularly, the emotive and fascinating world of cloning. Our main man is an ageing hitman whose services are no longer wanted. In fact, his existence is now considered undesirable, and to address this latter state of affairs his former keepers set their latest assassin on Brogan’s tail. This assassin, Junior, was cloned from Brogan’s blood 25 years previously, resulting in an exact replica with all the intrinsic gifts that made Brogan such a formidable killing machine in the past, allied to the considerable benefits of being young and fit.

So is this possible? Unquestionably we are moving in the direction where this could happen, without us knowingly being there yet. There were claims from South Korea in 1998 and again in 2004 of human clones, but these were rubbished and later retracted. And after a flurry of research activity in the 1990s, many countries have banned the scientific pursuit of ‘reproductive human cloning’, which has the goal of creating an entire human being. Although cloning comes in many shapes and forms, the basis here is to replace cells in a carrier with human DNA and grow in a test tube to embryo stage, before transplant to a surrogate mother.

The reference point we all know is Dolly the sheep, who was created by Scottish scientists in 1996 using a technique called somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). This comes under the umbrella of ‘therapeutic cloning’, which is considered more ethically acceptable as it generally involves creating cells and tissue for medical purposes. Seven years later (coincidentally just as Dolly was about to bleat her last), the Human Genome Project completed its full identification of human DNA. This, and the resulting research that has led on from it, has given us a far better understanding of how to create and use stem cells for the common good.

It is, of course, an ethical minefield. The argument of anti-abortionists about when a human becomes a living thing with its own rights becomes even more confused when living things can be created from DNA stored in a test tube.

A film such as ‘Gemini Man’, where government-sponsored hitmen are set against each other and death of extras is a visual effect rather than a string of personal tragedies, is not going to let itself get too bogged down in the ethical mire.

One observation:assuming the film takes place in the current time frame, if Junior was to appear 25 years after being cloned, he would have been born, or created, two years before Dolly and therefore ahead of medical science as we knew it. Perhaps more intriguing is the character and ability of the clone – would Junior automatically replicate Brogan’s killer instinct along with his physical attributes of being an expert in combat? Or would he need to share the same life experiences to get to the same mentality? Nature or nuture?

However, Dolly proves that mammals can be cloned, and there have subsequently been successes with dogs, cats, rabbits, horses and rodents. Primates and humans are far more complex because of our arrangement of proteins, but in 1999 a rhesus monkey, Tetra, was created in the US using the relatively less difficult technique of embryo splitting. More recently, in 2017, a team of researchers in Shanghai produced Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, a pair of identical crab-eating macaques. They were the first primates to be created using the same SCNT technique that was behind the creation of Dolly and, nearly two years after birth, both are still with us. It should be pointed out that the hit ratio is still low – while Dolly was the only success in 277 similar experiments, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were the only survivors of 21 implants into surrogate mothers.

With such technology in our armoury, cloning humans is therefore now very much within our grasp – if we want it. At the time, Muming Poo, one of the scientific leads on the macaque project, told ‘All Things Considered’ (an American radio programme): “Technically speaking, one can clone humans, but we’re not going to do it. There’s absolutely no plan to do anything on humans.”

It is the standard message that comes from all organisations involved in advancing such medical technology – this is great for fighting disease, but ethics prevents us from taking it any further. For the time being at least.

‘Gemini Man’ goes on release on 11 October 2019.

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