Two kids, a boy and a girl, play along a cold-looking stretch of beach on the English coast. The pre-teens grow close, but before they can reach the cusp of an awakening sexuality Rebecca and her family move overseas leaving Tommy with little more than memories and a dead snail in a matchbox. Rebecca (Eva Green) returns to the small seaside town two decades later and reunites with Tommy (Matt Smith), but he soon dies in an accident.
Lost in grief and living in a world that has perfected the art of cloning, she takes the next obvious step. She has herself impregnated with his cloned embryo (?) and carries it to term.
Unsurprisingly, things get complicated after she gives birth and raises him as her son. He passes through the childhood years as a mirror image of the boy she once crushed on, and he grows into a young man who looks identical to the man she loved intimately.
The past couple years have seen a renaissance of sorts in the mini-genre of lo-fi sci-fi. These are essentially indie films that use science fiction to tell a human story without the benefit or distraction of big budget special effects. Both Melancholia and (the superior) Another Earth used the idea of a newly discovered planet to investigate depression and guilt, respectively. The latter film’s star and co-writer, Brit Marling, also recently gave us Sound Of My Voice about a cult leader making some spectacular claims. The UK got in on the lo-fi action too with the excellent and powerful Eva Green/Ewan McGregor drama, Perfect Sense, about a plague that slowly strips away humanity’s senses.
Womb sees Green return with another “what if?” scenario set against a near-future world, but unfortunately it pales in comparison. There’s no doubt that the ethical questions and ideas introduced in writer/director Benedek Fliegauf’s film are intriguing and thought provoking, but that introduction is where the film’s fascination starts and ends. He fills the movie with stark beauty and long moments of reflection, but he forgets to add anything of substance.
Rebecca raises new Tommy in a world familiar with cloning but none too comfortable with it. Other parents warn her about neighborhood kids who are actually “copies” and Tommy is taught that they’re identifiable by their window cleaner-like smell. Into this uncertain society comes a boy whose intent is to grow into a man… so Rebecca can continue where they left off?
It’s a sticky situation made even ickier by longing glances, jealousy of her son’s first love, and bathtub scenes like the one above. And it’s all done with the tedious, slow pace of an incestuous iceberg. Seriously, it makes Birth look like a Tony Scott film about a perfectly normal mother and her well-adjusted son.
The film’s other big drawback are its two leads. Green shows zero emotion throughout with nary a reaction of any emotional weight. From Tommy’s death on she takes it all in silently and without a hint of visible response, and the result is a character who never engages on any level but the most superficial. Smith is no better but for almost the opposite reason. He shows emotion, but he shows it poorly and unconvincingly. In fact the film’s most affecting scene is the burial of toy dinosaur that’s still moving and struggling as the sand piles atop it. It’s a wind-up toy, but it’s near heart-breaking to watch in its final moments.
Womb has some very complex and fascinating ideas at its core, and the film’s pacing gives viewers lots of time to think about them. That in itself is an admirable plus for the film, but the movie drops the ball early and never recovers. If nothing else Fliegauf’s film is beautiful to look at so your eyes will never grow bored while pondering the directions the film could have gone. Think of it as a clone of really good drama about the intersection of love and ethics, but try to ignore the smell of window cleaner.
The Upside: Fascinating and thought provoking ideas.
The Downside: Dreadfully slow pace; devoid of emotion; Matt Smith is a dubious actor; Eva Green never ages throughout her son’s two decades of life.
On the Side: The film’s original UK title is the far less original Clone.