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Paul and Jessie Duncan are a happily married couple who dote on their son, Adam, who has just celebrated his eighth birthday. Life is looking up for the family until Adam is killed in a freak accident, whereupon Paul and Jessie plunge into the black depths or grief and despair.
Then a mysterious stranger enters their lives. Dr. Richard Wells is a genetic researcher and head of the Godsend Fertility Institute, and he offers the Duncans an opportunity that’s hard to turn down: he can clone their son. The catch? They have only 72 hours to make a decision, as Adam’s cells will have degraded too much beyond that point, and they cannot consult anyone, as what he proposes is illegal not to mention immoral.
After a bit of soul-searching, they accede to the doctor’s proposal.
Flash forward eight years, when the “new” Adam is celebrating his eighth birthday. The family is now entering uncharted territory, since their first son did not live beyond this point. And no sooner than you can say creepy cinematography, Adam starts having bizarre nightmares, falling into mysterious comas and exhibiting behavior that is increasingly unsettling.
What have they wrought? The Duncans desperately love Adam, but they’re becoming afraid for—and of—him. Dr. Wells initially agrees to help the boy, but soon it’s clear that he’s hiding something. And that deception is the vital clue in this taut psychological thriller.
First and foremost, we understand that just because we’re able to do something doesn’t mean we should. (Dr. Wells self-defensively asks at one point, “If I’m not supposed to do this, tell me why I can?”) Viewers see also a positive portrayal of an intact, loving family in the interactions of Paul and Jessie and they with their son. There’s no family dysfunction here, no smart-aleck kid mocking a bumbling dad, no wife hectoring a milquetoast husband.
The very name of the film and the mysterious scientific facility in it evoke many spiritual questions. Are we on the verge of playing God? What are the spiritual implications for the cloned child? Is it possible to believe something has been sent by God only to realize that you’ve been deceived?
Several scenes take place in and around a country church, and flashbacks occur in a Roman Catholic school. A priest consoles the couple after a funeral with a “God be with you,” and another man says, “God knows what you’ve been through.” Adam, when told that a reservoir is a manmade lake, asks, “I thought God made all things.” He’s told that yes, God makes all things, including the men who made the reservoir. (It’s meant to be a hint that by such reasoning, a manmade clone has equal legitimacy—just one example of Dr. Wells’ warped moral reasoning.)
Most of the sexual content is in the context of marriage. Jessie teases Paul, saying of her to-do list, “I have to do you” as she pulls him down on top of her on a sofa, whereupon they kiss. In another scene, they’re getting ready for bed, and we see her in skimpy underwear. They begin to passionately kiss, and he removes her T-shirt—nothing explicit is seen—and it’s implied that they're going to have sex. In another scene, Jessie (wearing a bra that shows a lot of cleavage) is startled awake in bed.
Paul, a biology teacher, makes an inadvertent joke about a boy’s genitals.
The accident that kills young Adam, caused by an out-of-control car, is seen from his perspective, although we don’t actually witness him being killed. A man is accosted by thugs, one of whom holds a switchblade to his throat. Adam spits on a playground bully and on a teacher who tries to break up the fight. [Spoiler Warning] It’s implied later that he murders the bully, and we see the dead body being recovered from a creek.
Several disturbing dream sequences are salted throughout the film—for example, a hand alternately holding a hammer or a hatchet about to smash down on someone’s head, sometimes accompanied by splattered blood. We see a dead body in a full bath, a boy being smothered with a shower curtain, corpse-like faces and decaying limbs. Fisticuffs break out after a funeral, and one man is clubbed over the head with a large candleholder. At the same time, a fire breaks out because of the overturned candle.
Crude or Profane Language
A boy calls a classmate "a--h---," but he’s immediately rebuked by his mother. The s-word is used half-a-dozen times. Jesus' and God’s names are abused a dozen times, sometimes as “G--d---." One man says, “It’ll scare the bejesus out of you.”
Drug and Alcohol Content
A few scenes of drinking wine in social situations. Paul, who teaches at an inner-city school, jokes about transferring to a different district where they have less crack cocaine.
Other Negative Elements
The playground bully taunts other boys by calling them names, such as “chicken” and “ladies.”
This story is a great illustration of how our scientific abilities have outrun our moral-reasoning abilities. Indeed, Dr. Leon Kass, head of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, recently said, “In the case of terrorism, it’s easy to identify evil, but in the realm of bioethics, the evils we face, if indeed they are evils, are intertwined with the goods we so keenly seek: cures for disease, relief of suffering, preservation of life. Distinguishing good and bad thus intermixed is often extremely difficult.”
The pace, cinematography and directing in Godsend make it a tense, if slightly derivative, thriller. (Compare, for example, The Omen and The Sixth Sense.) Unfortunately, it bears all the earmarks of having been focus-grouped into inferiority. About 10 minutes from the end it swerves in a direction not warranted by what has preceded, and it feels as if an entire chapter has been ripped from a book. What seems like it might have been the film’s original ending—a better ending, in my opinion—is followed lame summations addressing every possible ambiguity. Bad move. If true, the writer or director should have had the courage of their original vision.
A larger complaint, though, is that in the end, Godsend cheats when it comes to answering the overarching moral question. Based on previews, I originally feared that it might trivialize the morality of human cloning by having the result be a monster, thus relieving the filmmakers of having to address whether human cloning is evil in and of itself. But they did worse: such moral questions are made irrelevant. [Spoiler Warning] The cloned Adam turns out to be evil, not because there’s something inherently wrong with human cloning, but because Dr. Wells added a bit of genetic material from his own pathologically disturbed and now-dead son to that of the original Adam. The lesson is, basically, that it’s okay to clone a human, just don’t let a mad scientist do it.
A postscript: The filmmakers are taking some heat for creating a marketing Web site that mimics that of the fictional Godsend Fertility Institute seen in the film. Only by clicking on a very small disclaimer link at the bottom of the page do you learn that it’s a site for the movie. According to Reuters, it’s apparently fooling a lot of people, presumably some of whom are grieving a lost loved one. The site includes “testimonials” from people helped by Dr. Wells. (The only other potential clue to the site's fakery is that Dr. Wells looks remarkably like Robert De Niro.) Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, proudly boasts that his company is receiving several hundred calls a day to a toll-free phone number listed on the site. Ortenberg is unperturbed by the potential cruelty of the marketing hoax, bragging that it’s a “million-dollar idea” built for only $10,000.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Greg Kinnear as Paul Duncan; Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Jessie Duncan; Robert De Niro as Dr. Richard Wells; Cameron Bright as Adam Duncan
Nick Hamm ( )