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“CLOSER TO GOD” (Fantastic Fest Review)

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Out here in the real world, the marriage of medical inquiry to ever-evolving technology has eradicated plagues, advanced life expectancy dramatically, and provided a good deal of the planet’s inhabitants with a standard (and quality) of living that has vastly expanded our ability to pursue individual dreams and aspirations in ways those who previously trudged through human history could not even begin to fathom. (On this point, see Matt Ridley’s epic 2011 tour de force, THE RATIONAL OPTIMIST.) There are, of course, tragic and deeply disturbing examples of vile excess in the pursuit of a purported common good—the Tuskegee experiment, MKUltra, Project 4.1, profoundly immoral and heinous animal experimentation, the Burke and Hare murders—but, generally speaking, the benefits that have redounded to we the living via our collective (and overwhelmingly non-psychotic!) march of progress are, in context, nearly as fantastical as they are miraculous. 

And yet—setting aside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pair of not-so-horrific accidental body horror flicks, TWINS (1988) and JUNIOR (1994)—the tendency in cinema is to envision these current and future potentialities as near-certain dystopias-in-the-making. No joyous embrace of the coming Singularity for them!

Not that there’s anything wrong with that: What awaits us out in the unknown has always served as fertile ground for artists and filmmakers; the examination and sorting of such ensuing anxieties in a safe place has long been amongst the most noble and useful pursuits of genre cinema; art is not science; and, finally, whether such fears hold any water, it is certainly worthwhile to have a Devil’s Advocate around to say, “Yes, but what if this wasn’t an unalloyed good?”

We get essentially all of this, to varying degrees of effectiveness, from writer/director Billy Senese’s CLOSER TO GOD, a tale of human cloning gone both right and wrong, served up alongside a perhaps too-healthy portion of heavy-handed, insidiousness-of-the-mob chapter and verse.

Which is to say, discerning viewers will no doubt pick up on the Mary Shelley cribbing long before the crowds of caricatured religious fundamentalists start chanting “Go to jail, go to Hell—Dr. Frankenstein!”

CLOSER TO GOD opens with what appears to be your average, ordinary childbirth… right up until the moment a strange little receptor is affixed smack dab in the middle of the infant’s forehead by a very large, nasty looking needle. Immediately thereafter we’re transported to a tense meeting of Dr. Victor Reed and his advisors where, amidst a heated debate over how to reveal scientific accomplishments to a bunch of reactionary proles, we learn the infant Elizabeth is the first successfully cloned human being.

“This is all new territory,” the lawyer for the research group warns Victor. “We just don’t know. This state, the federal government, local authorities, religious groups—you, my friend, are going to have a very big target on your back.”

Undeterred, Victor holds a news conference during which he coolly describes the oddity of his involvement—“Are you her father?”; “Yes, I suppose you could look at it that way. I’m also biologically her brother”(!)—moments after giving the gathered reporters a master class in how to not do modesty—i.e.  “A defining moment in science and our progress of human beings.” (There are some accolades only other people should bestow upon you.)

As foretold, this doesn’t go over very well, and soon various groups—aforementioned fundies, politicians, cable news anchors, Victor’s fed-up wife—are all losing their shit in precisely the way you’d expect them to while Victor essentially stands around exuding a vaguely irked I’m a scientist not a therapist, dammit! mien.

For a time, the audience is tempted to feel the kind of empathy for Victor he is manifestly unable to feel for others: Though his clinical detachment from Elizabeth in her cold, surgical environs is borderline abusive, we are made well aware of his noble intentions; his desire to supplement human cognition function and discover cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a host of other disorders.

Alas, we then learn of another child borne of a previous experiment named Ethan, badly deformed, in chronic pain, and prone to bouts of uncontrollable rage, hidden away in the country farmhouse of the couple that takes care of Victor’s own blessedly normal children, and sympathy begins to drain away…

After all, however bitter and fundamental our societal disagreements may sometimes seem, there is, one imagines, a fairly robust consensus behind the idea that innocent children aren’t metaphorical eggs to be cracked in pursuit of the perfect genetic omelet—and even Victor Frankenstein, despite being browbeaten by the Monster and driven nearly mad with regret, ultimately refused to give life to a second creature…under threat of death.

At any rate, the situation soon spirals out of control as Victor’s cultural enemies close in at precisely the same moment that his earlier creation escapes, tightening the vise and dispensing with the generalized atmospheric dread in favor of a more visceral denouement—which includes an emotionally devastating, disquieting confrontation between Victor and Ethan that haunts long after the last credits roll.

In the wake of watching a baby and small, mangled child scream off and on for an hour, this tonal shift proves almost a relief.

Almost.

This kineticism is also where CLOSER TO GOD proves most effective. Devoid of nuance and depth, the philosophical discussion is not really all that edifying. But the pathos of a man-made monster, cursed to suffer, desperate for the normality he doesn’t quite understand? That is gut-punch cinema, done harrowingly right by Senese in the twilight of the film.

“When we talk about changing ourselves, from my perspective?” Victor muses at one point in a video message to his detractors. “We talk about altering our genetic structure. Our biology. And we’re understanding life at an incredibly rapid rate now, so much so that we’re beginning to be able to intervene into the process of our own evolution. Speed it up. Take control of it—scary or exciting…Our genetic structure will no longer be left to fate. It will be in our hands. We are on the brink of a new human evolution. And it’s not a matter of if we go down this path, because we are. It’s a matter of how we meet this future and how we allow it in our hearts and in our souls.”

Scary or exciting?

In the end CLOSER TO GOD appears to weigh in on behalf of the former, but we’ll all soon have the opportunity to mull such issues over outside the multiplex, whether we prefer to or not.

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About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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