Arnold Schwarzenegger, underdog? As difficult as the concept may be to grasp, that’s the situation with The Sixth Day, Schwarzenegger’s second attempt at a comeback following a prolonged, health-related absence from the big screen (his first try, last year’s End of Days, was far from a rousing success, grossing only $60 million domestically). Opening opposite How the Grinch Stole Christmas and with Charlie’s Angels still going strong, The Sixth Day will face some stiff competition. This will probably be Schwarzenegger’s last non-sequel for a while – he is reportedly slated to star in four consecutive follow-ups over the next several years: Terminator 3, Total Recall 2, Conan 3, and True Lies 2 (for which he will re-unite with director James Cameron).
During the height of his popularity, Schwarzenegger was Mr. Action. His movies were guaranteed to open big and pack theaters for weeks. But those times seem like long ago, and the muscle-bound ex-bodybuilder is beginning to resemble a relic from the past. In a climate where the term “action movie” has become synonymous with stylish, Matrix-like martial arts, Schwarzenegger’s old-fashioned brute force methods are a little dated. The Sixth Day might have looked pretty good ten or fifteen years ago, but, at the dawn of a new millennium, it seems a little long in the tooth. It’s fun at times, but not as fun as it should be.
Throughout his career, Schwarzenegger has shuttled back and forth between straightforward shoot-em-ups (Commando, Eraser) and films with thought-provoking, science-fiction oriented backstories (the Terminator series, Total Recall). The Sixth Day belongs in the latter category. The setup is particularly effective – the movie, which takes place in the near future, presents us with reasonable possibilities for how things might change in the next ten or twenty years. Many of the differences are subtle (like new methods for shaving), and a great deal of thought was obviously invested in making the world of The Sixth Day seem credible. The leaps in technology are convincing. Cars are not zipping around in the air – they’re still confined to the roads (although they are capable of auto-driving).
The cloning of animals is widespread, but it is illegal to clone human beings. To do so is to commit a “Sixth Day Violation”, which punishes the perpetrator with a long prison term and the clone with immediate eradication. The arguments against cloning cover the spectrum from religious to philosophical to scientific. Do clones have souls? Are they “real” people? Does cloning offer true immortality or just the perception of it? And what happens if something goes wrong during the cloning process (such as aborting it before it’s completed)? Since the public is worried about what the answers might be, the government has made laws forbidding experimentation. But not everyone obeys those laws. In fact, Drucker (Tony Goldwyn), one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, has a secret lab devoted to human cloning. His chief scientist, Dr. Weir (Robert Duvall), is the world’s foremost authority, and he clones human beings at will using a three step process: grow a “blank” (an adult sized embryo) vessel, add DNA from a selected specimen, then implant memories via a cortical transfer. Within two hours, anyone can be replicated.
Adam Gibson (Schwarzenegger) is an ordinary guy minding his own business when he gets mixed up with Drucker. He and his partner, Hank (Michael Rappaport), are the pilot-owners of Double X Charters. Drucker hires them to fly him to an out-of-the-way ski resort. But something goes wrong, and, that night when Adam arrives home, he discovers that his place in the world has been usurped by a replica. Suddenly, he is being hunted by Drucker’s paid assassins while trying to find a way to restore the life that has been taken away from him.
Many of the ideas present in The Sixth Day are similar to the strands woven into another Schwarzenegger effort, Total Recall, which also dealt with identity ambiguity and mental manipulation. The Sixth Day is more plausible, but it’s also less energetic. The action sequences (which include numerous shoot-outs and a car chase) are workmanlike. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, who previously helmed the James Bond adventure Tomorrow Never Dies, brings little to the table except for several unremarkable tricks (slow motion action moments, repeating short clips, etc.). If Spottiswoode is attempting to give The Sixth Day a Matrix-like feel, he fails.
One of The Sixth Day’s enemies is its overblown running length. This repetitious motion picture is badly in need of an editor. At 90 minutes, it might have been lean and mean enough to get by, but, at just over two hours, it drags. There’s too much needless exposition and too little genuine excitement. When death is no longer a reality, who cares? (Dead villains are quickly resurrected via cloning.) Schwarzenegger’s Adam is likable enough, but that’s about all he has going for him. The bad guys aren’t imposing. Tony Goldwyn’s low-key villain is driven by capitalist (not psychotic) impulses. Weir is a “pure” scientist. That basically leaves the frothing at the mouth to Michael Rooker, but he doesn’t seem into it. Wendy Crewson and Taylor Anne Reid add a little human interest to the story, playing Adam’s wife and daughter.
The Sixth Day contains its share of intriguing ideas and does more than merely pay lip service to them. The movie raises a lot of legitimate questions about the ethics and philosophical ramifications of cloning. However, a strong backstory is not why people go to a Schwarzenegger film – they pay their hard-earned money to see the icon do what he does best: kick butt and kill the bad guys. He accomplishes both in The Sixth Day, but not with a great deal of panache. As an action film, this movie is more recycled than innovative or energetic. And, on those occasions when it tries to do something out-of-the-ordinary, its success is marginal. The twists are easily predicted and too reminiscent of similar developments in Total Recall. The movie needs one solid surprise to turn things around – but it never delivers. Ultimately, The Sixth Day serves to remind us that Schwarzengger is still out there, even if he’s not the force to be reckoned with that he once was. When he utters a slightly altered version of his signature line – “I might be back” – we believe him, but aren’t necessarily enthused about the prospect.