The storyline takes place 17 years from now and the particulars of how the company practices the science of cloning are so far removed from anything that will be possible that no sane person could take it as a serious threat. However, in this movie there are some alarming hints, signs and allusions, not even skin-deep, and it doesn’t take a pedantic film critic to notice them.
These hints point to a disturbing reality that makes one wonder whether this is not just another Hollywood movie washed ashore on our Atlantic island but a movie that deals with issues very close to the Icelandic population; closer than skin-deep, as close as DNA.
Selling the Human Body
At the turn of the millennium, deCODE, Íslensk erfðagreining, which is run by the charismatic Kári Stefánsson, offered to take advantage of the unique possibilities for genetic research in Iceland: 1) a relatively homogenous population and 2) a complete and extensive genealogy of Icelandic ancestry. (Every “pure-blooded” Icelander can track his or her origins back to the first settlers of Island 900 AD.) This enables the researchers to track down hereditary genes, potentially alleviating the symptoms of diseases before they can be screened by regular means. Already, deCODE genetics have pushed the limits of what was thought possible in genetic medicine, with groundbreaking work in isolating the genes that could trigger schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
This sounds great but what about the controversy? In order to take full advantage of mapping the population, the company was given access to complete public health records. As in other European countries such records are subject to government ownership to allow the public sector to provide near full coverage for the people’s medical needs. deCODE was then able to create a national database with information on our family relations, diseases– lifestyle related or otherwise, regardless of doctor-patient privacy; this information was provided directly from the state and deCODE given an exclusive license. Many questions arose: The data are encrypted and de-personalized, but how safe is the system? People were given the chance to fill out a petition to be excluded from the database, hence securing the constitutional rights of individual privacy, but should it not have been the other way around? Those volunteering for participation could sign up – and the rest of us would have the benefit of the doubt.
These concerns were swept away by government and company, allowing deCODE to benefit from the fact that only a small percentage of the population signed off: typically, well-educated people with access to foreign language media. (A small cultural note: many Icelanders stick to the belief that we live in a classless society.) Those Icelanders without access to foreign language media would have had to access the information themselves, find the initiative, ponder ethical questions, and filter through a lot of legal and technical jargon in order to build up the courage to face the obvious: A private company is making money with information about my health, my genes, and my body.
Did the press react? It certainly did internationally with headlines in the New York Times like Iceland, the Nation of Clones (1999) and People Are Not Commodities (1999). Special seminars in biology and bioethics were dedicated to Iceland in universities like Princeton and Berkeley in the U.S.
There was some protest in Iceland but it was deemed untimely when the matter was under consideration in the parliament – the government, headed by Prime Minister (now Foreign Minister) Davíð Oddsson, retorted that the decision should have its due course through proper channels. In Iceland, where the distinction between the legislative and executive powers has been continuously blurred, many had their proper worries. On December 17, 1999, the 123rd session of Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, passed the Act on Health Sector Database. After the decision was made, which favoured deCODE genetics, protesters were advised to pack their bags, the cause was lost; people should move on. After all, the stakes are high in the health business, and who doesn’t want to help the sick? You were either for the database or against science, medicine, and high-tech jobs for Icelanders.
Case closed. Over. Even before it begins. The narrative of protest in Iceland doesn’t seem to be able to include the present tense – it deals with past tense and lost causes, and a future that looks so remote to most Icelanders that big issues like DNA-ethics, eugenics, informed consent, intellectual property, unfair appropriation of personal information—well, all this sounds like strange science fiction.
At Least Give the Natives Glass Beads
The same narrative repeated itself when foreign protestors hiked up to the highland, this summer, and disturbed work at the construction site for the Kárahnjúkar dam. The Icelandic media were flustered. Why protest after the work has begun? The Right reacted with affected remorse that now was the time when “professional protestors” challenge the authority of democratically chosen governments. The main concern of Left and Centre-Leftist columnists, such as the writers Guðmundur A. Thorsson, Egill Helgason and Mörður Árnason, was that the protest was untimely, and while they ridiculed the harsh and unusual reaction of the police, under the direction of Independence Party Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason, they disssociated themselves from the protestors.
This comes at a time when the 21st century will pose three major challenges to human dignity:
1) The human body – Who owns it? What’s it worth? What can we do with it?
2) Open space – what should inhabit it? Mother Nature, the public or the excavating machines of corporate shareholders?
3) Information – Who should control it? When does it become private property and what’s in it for me?
The controversy around deCODE genetics and the Kárahnjúkar dam has put Iceland in the hot spot regarding these issues. But there is nothing hot when it comes to Icelandic vigilance. With the decision of 1999 to allow the deCODE database, the case of bioethics cannot be closed. Icelandic columnists and intellectuals cannot simply shrug off these matters in past tense remorse.
We have always preferred to sit the storm out, rather than ride it, or god forbid, counter it. A local expression goes “Talking doesn’t change the weather or the kings of Denmark” – so we should embrace our fate. But when it comes to DNA and Open Space, others will be there ahead of us if we do nothing. And we should be embarrassed when Harvard lawyer and researcher Jamaica Potts writes a report on deCODE genetics, titled: At Least Give the Natives Glass Beads: An Examination of the Bargain Made between Iceland and deCODE Genetics (2002).
So why should we discuss deCODE genetics six years later? Especially, when many concerns around the database have been proven unwarranted, and deCODE has up to now been unable to capitalize the information as first intended due to technical issues? Well, here is something, for starters: The information of my ancestry and health record is still an asset licensed to a private company. But what kind of a property is such information? The very state of such property hasn’t been fully resolved conclusively anywhere in world. To keep up open discussions on such matters in the media demands vigilance and constant reminders – protesting could be one way – but strangely enough, I think a scriptwriter in Hollywood may have beat us to it.
To Save Us: Subversive Product Placement
And now, for the hints in the movie The Island – But plot addicts beware, there are spoilers ahead! Ewan McGregor plays the character Lincoln Six Echo who finds himself in a super-posh high-tech construct. He thinks he was brought there because all life has vanished on earth due to deadly contamination. He doesn’t remember anything of his former life outside. He very much likes super-hot Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson). He belongs to a white-clad work force that leads perfectly healthy lives, shepherded by a black-clad police force – which definitely has a hidden agenda. Everybody is content, but Lincoln Six Echo is different – he is curious about the outside.
In fact, after some struggle he finds out that he is in fact a clone. He is a full-scale copy of a person living in the outside world, actually in L.A. year 2019. Everything was a lie, and his only purpose is to be a spare replacement container. And when the time comes, when the real person wants a new kidney, he will be killed and harvested for living tissues. People paid a lot of money for this perfect health insurance. But they are unaware that the clones are actual human beings. They are led to believe that the organs are produced by vegetative machines. An evil scientist leads the company that is responsible.
Lincoln and Jordan escape, meet some real people, have sex for the first time, and realize the people are not good, but “will do anything to survive.” So when they meet their real counterparts, who are called the sponsors (hint!), they realize that “people want to eat hamburgers, without seeing the cows.” And that’s the reason why there always will be people with enough money to buy outrageous commodities, even if the cost includes violating bodies. After all, we can always kid ourselves.
This movie raises moral issues but solves them as any science fiction movie does. Usually there is a grim future but this is always the result of human nature. Man is so evil that things must go wrong. But then there is a good guy, and, by evoking the most traditional values, he wins the girl in the end. So why is The Island different? The overall plot is in line with the abovementioned formula. But then there is this: the black-clad watchmen and doctors call the clones the products. They do this to strip them of all human value. They are taught that they have a special purpose. They are meant to be replacements.
This leads us to another common feature of the Hollywood film – the product placement. Whenever you see a brand in a movie – Honda, Pepsi, Seiko, etc. – someone has paid a lot of money to replace a generic prop with a significant, branded one. A car will not just be car in the movie, but a car that carries the message that this car is a Honda. Information is made valuable, and you the receiver, make it so – without getting paid, need I say. You must not be aware of this, so advertisement psychologists measure the threshold of your consciousness, and the brand is only shown for a short period of time, for you not to register it. In The Island, this threshold is blatantly crossed, which means that someone in the editing room conspired with the scriptwriter to make fools of the advertisers. This is done in a movie that plays with the idea that corporate science is replacing the natural with the artificial. A clone can replace a human being – and a human body is replaced by something that can be turned into a commodity. Genes are made to be a production replacement: A single piece of information that suddenly gets a value and is claimed for ownership.
Does this sound familiar? Surely, the companies that paid a lot to get their brand shown in the movie wouldn’t want to be connected with the evil done in the movie. But by this little allusion, and many more, the damage is done. The scriptwriter may very well have succeeded with a small subterfuge to protest against a genre that is conservative and business that is heavily dependent on advertisement.
And here is a long shot. Maybe the scriptwriter had Iceland in mind when he wrote the script for The Island. A remote island, the healthy blue eyes, the nationwide capitalization of hereditary information. If so he would surely have been inspired after listening to the ABC reporting where, for a broad U.S. audience, Richard Gizbert said: “In effect, Iceland is treating its unique genetic heritage as a natural resource.” And here are the morals: Even in a narrative genre like science fiction, where the good are good and the bad are bad, there is always room for some subversive pranks. And even in a country where people are brought up with the narrative that resistance is futile, there is room, right now, for reminders that make us uneasy about past choices – be it science or fiction.