The 6th Day
Reviewed in November 2000
Director: Roger Spottiswoode. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Goldwyn, Michael Rapaport, Robert Duvall, Michael Rooker, Sarah Wynter, Wendy Crewson, Rod Rowland, Wanda Cannon, Taylor Anne Reid, Jennifer Gareis. Screenplay: Cormac and Marianne Wibberley.

Photo © 2000 Columbia Pictures/Phoenix Pictures
You don't have to look hard at The 6th Day to see Arnold Schwarzenegger sweating. I'm not talking about the perspiration that accompanies being a commando, killing a predator, or telling true lies. I'm talking the desperation of someone who knows his moment has passed but isn't ready to acknowledge that, or else thinks that half-smirking at how outmoded he's become qualifies as a comeback. Both The 6th Day and its star demonstrate a nagging alternation between trying too hard and trying too little. Ironically, taking either route exclusively would probably have produced a better movie—the slack second half should have been tackled with the same narrative and pyrotechnic gusto of the first hour, or else those opening sequences should have been trimmed of the expendable characters and scenes that make it feel so crowded. As the film stands, I felt as though I'd been watching it for at least six days before it reached its utterly conventional conclusion.

Props to Arnold & Co. for tackling his most ambitious plot since the still-thrilling Terminator 2. Adam Gibson, Schwarzenegger's character, lives at an unspecified point in the near future, where animal-cloning technologies have been perfected and are illegally being implemented by high-powered humans to beat the Grim Reaper. Adam, a stalwart believer in natural lifespans, won't even agree to buying a totally legal replacement pet when his young daughter's dog dies. He becomes more dramatically implicated in the debate, and in its life-and-death stakes, through some complicated developments involving mistaken identity, religious fanaticism, and the attempted assassination of a megalomaniacal cloning tycoon played by Tony Goldwyn. (After this movie and Bounce in the same weekend, no Goldwyn character should ever again travel by air.) Suffice it to say that Adam, whom Powerful People (read: Evil People) believe to be dead, comes home after a weird afternoon to find his own spitting image celebrating his birthday with his totally duped wife and daughter.

At heart, none of this exposition suggests an action movie, and The 6th Day consistently seems uncomfortable when it has to become one. Explosions seem perfunctory, chase scenes soon grow tedious, and the all-but-anonymous baddies seem borrowed from another movie entirely. In fact, they reminded me of the thugs under Michael Wincott's employ in Strange Days, a far superior near-future thriller that seems like more of an influence as The 6th Day continues and little diskettes containing the "memories" of different characters are being swapped around. Unfortunately, if the film itself seems most perfunctory in its action sequences, they are, as expected, the only moments when Schwarzenegger seems confidently engaged in what he's doing. His films have always used dry, groaner-heavy humor to buoy him through expository sequences in which he might otherwise seem lost, and for a while, The 6th Day taps into the same good-natured self mockery that made Commando and its ilk such shockingly congenial entertainments. Some early scenes involving a truly grotesque "doll" that delights its young owners by growing real hair are both funny and squirmy, and they provide a witty, entirely deserved send-up of Arnold's doll-driven comedy fiasco Jingle All the Way, which was only squirmy, never funny. Also, a climactic moment in the cloning plot allows Arnold to make truly classic use of the epithet, "Go fuck yourself."

Still, too often, the film and its star seem to have different strengths and priorities, and as a result, they both keep straining too hard to meet each other. The script soon drops its credible, intriguing questions about cloning and human life, substituting a mawkish, gratuitous subplot about a woman who implores her husband, a cloning doctor played by Robert Duvall (!), to let her pass away. The filmmakers seem not to understand that the best action films—a category to which both Terminator films indisputably belong—pack their emotions into the combat. If you have to swerve away from your plot to elicit some feeling, you aren't doing your job. Even that strategy is preferable, though, to the approach taken by the film's final act, when the cloning theme is just an easy way to get two Arnolds for the price of one, running and shooting and uttering increasingly dismal puns. These "action" standoffs are so lame that one Schwarzenegger seems like more than enough to handle all threats. It's a terrible sign in a movie about cloning when the clone seems unnecessary.

This problem of emphasizing concept over execution also pervades the film's visual scheme. The art directors have done a good job of moving toward that Blade Runner-Fifth Element Metropolis of the Future without straying too far from the recognizable present day. The 6th Day shows us shopping malls, refrigerators, taxi cabs, helicopters, and other familiar artifacts of the twentieth century that are tweaked with just enough futuristic details—you can order food by pressing buttons on your fridge, and the helicopters become remote-control Harrier jets in a matter of seconds—that the film nearly passes muster as a nifty vision of an approaching world. Unfortunately, the color scheme of The 6th Day is one of the year's most garish, and the cinematographer tries to cram so much into every set-up that the actual images resemble a sort of neon pointillism seen too close. Extras turn up as blotches of fuchsia and turquoise, and we're often unsure where we should be looking.

I don't wish Arnold Schwarzenegger ill, and I'm a willing enough viewer of his glory period films, and even of the delightfully cheesy Conan stuff. Still, The 6th Day confirms that he, like Stallone, is aging with only a modicum of grace. His constant, obvious yearning that this film connect with its audience looks all the more conspicuous next to the serviceable, exertion-free performances of Goldwyn, Duvall, and Michael Rapaport, who know this movie is garbage and that they'll get more work soon after. Not so for Mr. Schwarzenegger—that the first scene in The 6th Day shows him flexing his muscles seems less like smart self-skewering than an urgent, flailing attempt to show us that he's still got the biceps. Self-parody isn't a garnish on the action scenes anymore, it's the only thing keeping them afloat. I'd consider checking out another Arnold movie if he reteams with James Cameron, always his most reliable collaborator, but until then, I think his career as a by-the-numbers brawn machine needs to get put on total recall. C

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