And You Call Yourself a AScientist!

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THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY (1999)

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"I am about to demonstrate powers of the mind unprecedented in our lifetime - a mere hint of what evolutionary possibilities await man, millions of years into his future. Except that for us, the future is now - for I have harnessed tomorrow, and brought it here today."

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Director: Winrich Kolbe

Starring: Jason Brooks, Stacy Haiduck, Robert Floyd, Kevin Tighe, Robert Kerbeck, Tom Virtue

Screenplay: Glen A. Larson

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Synopsis: A violent earthquake shakes Antarctica, revealing an ancient cavern that had been sealed off for eons. Inside, scientists find the body of a human being, perfectly preserved in the ice…. The Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, Allan Hollingsworth (Kevin Tighe), flies to the site of the find. Scientist Chuck Witzer (Robert Kerbeck) informs Hollingsworth of an incredible anomaly: the body is millions of years old, but its clothing is synthetic. Hollingsworth immediately orders a news blackout. In Santa Barbara, Hollingsworth visits genetic archaeologist Jennifer Carter (Stacy Haiduk), imploring her assistance. Later, Hollingsworth and Witzer discuss the possibility of inviting geneticist Jack Ward (Jason Brooks) into their project. Witzer is against it, arguing that the scientist is not a team player, but Hollingsworth believes that his work on cell retrieval makes his input imperative. Hollingsworth tracks Jack down at a San Diego Padres training session, where he is watching his younger brother, Andy (Robert Floyd), pitch to the players. Jack promises himself that one day he will find a way through his research to help Andy, who is brain damaged due to oxygen deprivation at birth. Jack is hostile and suspicious when approached by Hollingsworth, but agrees to examine the data and samples that the agent gives him. Jennifer finds that the frozen man was over 300 hundred years old when he died, but shows no signs of aging or degenerative disease. In addition, his brain is larger and more complex than contemporary man's; a finding confirmed by Jack's genetic analysis. Hollingsworth tells Witzer that the two research programs will be run independently, with the two scientists having no knowledge of one another; and that while it was necessary that Jennifer know about the man in the ice, Jack will not be told the source of his material. After some initial failures, Jack develops a chemical solution that allows the cells from the frozen man to be revived. Witzer steals Jack's formula and gives it to Jennifer as his own work, allowing her to replicate Jack's experiments. Then, while Jack begins a slow regime of rodent testing using DNA extracted from the cells, Witzer pressures Jennifer into treating primates. Jack takes Andy to play on the company's softball team. The coach, Dr Jim Meyer (Tim Virtue), objects, but Jennifer talks him into it. She and Jack become friends. Back in the lab, Jack finds that his test rat is displaying an astonishing increase in intelligence, but also some adverse physical signs. He decides to suspend the treatment. Jennifer, meanwhile, is working with a chimp nicknamed Mr Jaggs. With incredible rapidity, the animal learns to spell using a keyboard, and in mere days is communicating with complete sentences. Jack and Jennifer take Andy to the beach. A sulky Witzer, who is also attracted to Jennifer, takes his mood out on Mr Jaggs, verbally abusing the animal and denying it the banana it repeatedly demands. As Witzer leaves the lab, the enraged chimp focuses its concentration on a basket of bananas on the far side of the room. The basket begins to move….

Comments: I suppose you could call this an instance of, "Be careful what you pray for". Some time back, in my review of Amphibian Man, I bemoaned the fact that while plenty of crappy science fiction movies are churned out every year, few of them are enlivened by the kind of Seriously Silly Science that graced our screens during the first half of last century. I spoke, obviously, in ignorance of the existence of The Darwin Conspiracy, which not only serves up huge dollops of deliciously dumb science, but does so with an air of absolute gravity - which of course adds enormously to the fun. The Darwin Conspiracy opens with a voiceover about mysterious civilisations of the past, all destroyed by great cataclysms of nature, which makes it sound like we're in for a re-working of Chariots Of The Gods; but this out of the way, the film settles instead for ripping off The X-Files by mixing outlandish pseudo-science with an excruciatingly badly executed "evil government plot" storyline. The Darwin Conspiracy was written and produced by television mainstay Glen A. Larson, who in the course of a career now into its fifth decade has given the world (among many other shows) Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Knight Rider, and - remember this one? - Manimal; and as we speak, is threatening humanity with the advent of Super Knight Rider 3000. (Look upon his works, oh ye television watchers, and tremble!) You may have noticed that all of Larson's works that I have mentioned so far are not movies, but television series - which I suspect is what The Darwin Conspiracy was originally intended to be, too. The production is listed in all the databases as a made-for-TV movie, but I'd be willing to bet that isn't how it was shot. With its cardboard cut-out Bad Guys, its constantly moralising Hero, and its horrid tendency towards both hugging and learning, The Darwin Conspiracy feels very much like a failed pilot episode. Heck, it almost smells like a failed pilot episode. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you stepped in The Darwin Conspiracy, it would leave a thoroughly icky mess on the bottom of your shoe. Just like - a failed pilot episode.

The fun of The Darwin Conspiracy lies equally in the outlandishness of its concept, and in the fundamental ignorance of the simplest aspects of the scientific process that it displays at almost every turn. If Glen Larson's research for his screenplay consisted of anything more taxing than watching Jurassic Park over beer and potato chips, I'd be mightily surprised. (There is a fairly explicit reference to Jurassic Park in the course of the film that is funny for two reasons. Firstly, we learn that it is in fact a movie about "one of Jack Ward's off-the-wall notions" - take that, Michael Crichton! - and secondly---well, let's just say that Jurassic Park is itself not entirely free of shonky science.) The other notable feature of The Darwin Conspiracy is the attitude of its hero, Jack Ward. Jack, not to put too fine a point upon the matter, is a sanctimonious jerk. His voiceovers narrate the action (often spelling out for us plot points that we're clearly too dumb to figure out for ourselves, or recapitulating action that took place a full five minutes earlier), so that we are given ample opportunity of learning just how much better, in Jack's opinion, he is, than anyone else in the world. Like all good movie scientists, Jack went into his line of research because of a personal trauma - in this case, the brain damage that his kid brother, Andy, suffered at birth. We learn just who was responsible for Andy's tragedy in the film's most tone-setting line. After he has been approached by Hollingsworth, who lures him into the ice-man project with mysterious hints about how it might help Andy, Jack shares his innermost thoughts with the audience. "I hadn't been able to bring myself to trust government-sponsored medicine," he begins - and I'm sorry, but I'm not even going to let him finish his sentence before I object to it. He doesn't trust government-sponsored medicine? Well, that's a comprehensive statement. I presume he means that we should close all hospitals that receive government assistance, shut down all government research facilities, stop the funding of all doctors and scientists employed on government grants, and abandon all forms of patient care developed over the years via billions of dollars' worth of government funding. Yeah, that'd make the world a better and healthier place, all right.

(In the interests of disclosing a possible conflict of interest, I feel I should reveal that, through convoluted channels, I am myself currently funding by the US Government. So I guess Jack's right - if they'd fund me, they'd fund anybody, right?)

But of course, I interrupted Jack, didn't I? - and I really should let him finish his sentence. "I hadn't been able to bring myself to trust government-sponsored medicine," he reveals to us, "not since my brother's accident at birth, which took place in a military hospital." Later, when Jennifer asks about Andy's condition, Jack expands upon this point. "It was in a military hospital - poorly maintained equipment, inexperienced personnel…." I never quite know how to react when screenwriters put stuff like this into the mouths of scientists. Is a howl of derisive laughter in order, do you think, or would a cringe of embarrassment be more appropriate? Jack's attitude here does raise an interesting question, though: who, exactly, funds his work? We never do find out. Frankly, I was astonished when it turned out that the film-makers had passed on a golden opportunity to trot out one of the Classic Clichés of science fiction here, and didn't make Jack independently wealthy (with a lab in his basement), so that his immaculate research need not be tainted by funding from any source. But whoever has been funding Jack---well, more fools they. Having analysed the samples supplied by Hollingsworth (work which we hope he didn't do in his current lab - it's bad enough that he's stealing their time, without stealing their resources as well), Jack decides to "change labs" - instantaneously, and presumably breaking his current employment contract. Strange that such a high-minded individual wouldn't see anything wrong with this conduct - but I guess that when it comes to a rare individual like Jack, the rules just don't apply.

Now, a guy like Jack obviously deserves a special kind of woman, and he gets one in Jennifer Carter, who is the Indiana Jones of genetic archaeology. No, really - that's how she's introduced to us. Before you get carried away, though, and think that this means that Jennifer's life is one of exciting and dangerous adventures - or even that she will do something remotely interesting at some stage of the film - I should point out that this title is granted entirely in recognition of the fact that Jennifer does field work as well as teaching, which in the world of The Darwin Conspiracy seems to make her some kind of freakish superwoman instead of - um, a professional scientist, maybe? Jennifer's examination of the ice-man swiftly - very swiftly - establishes that he was over 300 years old when he died, but showed no sign of aging or degenerative disease; and that his brain is larger than contemporary man's, with far more complex synapse networks. (If you've guessed that Jennifer will eventually trot out that idiotic "only 10% of our brains" trope, give yourself a gold star.) Meanwhile, working even more swiftly - like, within 24 hours (he must have one of those instantaneous DNA analysers, like Penelope Ann Miller in The Relic) - Jack not only determines that the ice-man represents "another million years of evolution" and has "100 larger, more complex genes than those found in modern man" (!!), but manages to assign functions to those genes: "intellect, motor function, co-ordination…." Then Jack is let loose in the lab, and the comedy escalates even more. The mis-information at work in these scenes is simply unbelievable. Comparatively simple terms, like "DNA", "cells" and "tissues", are blithely used interchangeably, and the object of Jack's research seems to shift from scene to scene - as does the means by which he intends to pursue it. When Hollingsworth and Chuck Witzer are first discussing Jack, we learn that he has won scientific fame for "resuscitating" (that's resuscitating, mind you!) "a 100-year-old beetle". When Witzer dares sneer at this achievement, Jack retorts loftily that the beetle isn't important - it's the principle of the work that matters. And this is true - except that when we see Jack again he's working on single cells in culture - actually, a single cell - and can't possibly be applying the same principles. (Although, granted, this cell is rather more believable than Jack's Mummy-esque beetle.) And then, barely days later, Jack is wielding syringes full of DNA - a good trick, seeing that he didn't even bother to handle his one precious cell sterilely. (And don't get me started on the difficulties of growing normal cells in culture in the first place!) A test rat, dubbed "the Professor", is injected with this "highly evolved DNA" which, Jack tells us solemnly, "is sending out coded messages to every cell in his body". Well, that's a nice theory, but - if you're trying to increase the animal's intelligence, why would you want the DNA signalling "every cell in his body"? And if you are, presumably, targeting the brain, why is the DNA being administered via intraperitoneal injection? I guess it slipped Jack's mind that raw DNA isn't capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier. Maybe he could do with a shot of that DNA himself….

It is at this point that The Darwin Conspiracy stops being merely amusing sloppy, and becomes out-and-out ridiculous. Although Jack insists that he is testing "rats" with his DNA (a scientist experiment on more than one animal!? Geddoutavit!), we see only "the Professor", whose intelligence is "quadrupled" by the DNA treatment. This is enough for government mole Chuck Witzer, who has been supplying Jennifer with materials and ideas stolen from Jack, and passing them off as his own work. Chuck insists that Jennifer begin testing their own DNA preparation on a primate, a chimp named Mr Jaggs, which in days learns to spell, and then to construct sentences. (I wonder which of them taught it to say, "Damn it!"?) Despite the success of the work, Chuck isn't a happy man: he's got the hots for Jennifer but she, having fallen for Jack, isn't interested. (I just love the moment when she observes conversationally, "You know, Chuck, you've got a dark side that frightens me.") So, unwisely, Chuck takes out his bad temper on Mr Jaggs, verbally abusing the animal and denying him his demanded banana. Mr Jaggs responds by throwing a cup of water all over Chuck - who, for reasons best known to himself, sticks his finger into the chimp's cage - and then looks surprised when he gets bitten! Chuck storms off after that, and the frustrated Mr Jaggs focuses all of his DNA-enhanced intelligence upon the basket of bananas on the other side of the room - which starts to move towards him. Yup, that's right: a telekinetic chimp! Chuck re-enters the room during this demonstration, gawps at a floating banana, then rushes off to Hollingsworth, announcing, "I've got a chimpanzee who could pass the civil service exam!" (Wow - who knew you need telekinesis to be a civil servant?)

His moment of glory at hand, Chuck arranges a demonstration for the powers-that-be at the "Organization For Advanced Sciences" - this being the shadowy government department for which Jack and Jennifer are now working. Wanna know what I think? I think the OFAS is probably the place where all those ee-vil military superweapons are developed - you know, the ones that all those psychotic military leaders are always trying to blow up selected portions of the world with. Now, as we're all very well aware, those superweapons always go horribly wrong - and so does Chuck's demonstration. Instead of just floating a banana across the room, as requested, Mr Jaggs starts mentally pelting ol' Chuck and the other government agents present with everything he can get his, uh, brain on. Then, in the midst of the ensuing panic, he bolts. (He has no trouble escaping the building, of course - great security!) On the way to the OFAS building, we saw Mr Jaggs watching intently as Chuck drove the car, and now the chimp puts his newly-acquired knowledge to the test, leaping behind the steering wheel and telekinetically driving off down the road! (The thing I love most about this scene is that Mr Jaggs stops to put his seatbelt on before taking off. Chuck wasn't even wearing one!) But, alas! - Mr Jaggs must not have paid quite close enough attention to what Chuck was doing, as he proves to have difficulty steering. As he swerves all over the road, an inevitable truck looms up in the other direction and, BLAMMO! - no more telekinetic chimp. Awww….

(Before I go any further, I really do have to stress something about the preceding sequence: it is played out absolutely dead seriously.)

About this time, Jack discovers that Chuck has been stealing his work. A suspicious fire in Jennifer's lab takes care of the evidence - including the late Mr Jaggs - and this event provokes Jack and Jennifer into violating their mutual confidentiality agreements. Another piece of brilliance on the part of the OFAS: it's imperative that Jack and Jennifer don't meet and start comparing notes, so what do they do? - they give them labs in the same complex. Duh! But of course, the J.'s don't meet through science; that wouldn't be cute enough. (Also of course, they don't already know each other, despite working in the same field. Scientists in films never do collaborative research, or attend conferences, or give seminars, or….) Instead, they meet when Jack tries to get Andy into the company softball team. The coach, Dr Jim Meyer, objects, diagnosing Andy as being incapable of anything more complex than "synchronised drooling" (that's what I like in my physicians - tact and compassion!). In response to this, Jennifer threatens to walk off the team and upset its PC two-women requirement if Andy isn't allowed to play.

Unfortunately for Andy, it turns out that Jim Meyer takes his softball very, very seriously. The results obtained with Mr Jaggs convince Hollingsworth and Witzer that they're ready to move into treating humans, and before we know it, Dr Meyer is giving Andy a "flu shot". Almost at the same time, Jack's rat, the Professor, keels over and dies as a result of his treatment (it's like I always said: intelligence is bad for you!). Meyer then has a crisis of conscience, and we get a textbook killed-before-he-can-speak sequence. (Why do these people never just say what they have to say, instead of insisting over and over that "they can't speak here" or don't want to say it "over the phone"!?) Jennifer takes Jack to see the ice-man (who looks remarkably intact, considering all the samples that have been taken from him), and we find that even though they know what a threat the J.'s now pose to them, those OFAS geniuses haven't bothered to alter their security arrangements: Jennifer's swipe card still works! Oh, well. I guess if it's good enough for Steven Spielberg, it's good enough for Glen A. Larson.

Andy then begins to show signs of his treatment: improved memory, eye-hand co-ordination, and verbal abilities - and yup, telekinesis! But it doesn't stop there, oh my, no! He's also got super-strength, telepathy, and the ability to "will" other people to do what he wants! Yes, folks, all this can be yours, after a mere one million years of further evolution! Of course, with all these miraculous abilities, you kind of have to wonder about the incredible civilisation that preceded our own, and the "cataclysm" that destroyed it. I mean, will all these amazing mental abilities, shouldn't they have seen the cataclysm coming? (You may insert your own "why do psychics need doorbells" joke here.)

And what, you may be asking, does Andy do with all these powers? Why, he makes every boy's dream come true, of course! The first thing Jack does in the film is reveal Andy's life-long dream to us: to be a professional baseball player. Well, Andy doesn't make it quite that far, but - through a series of contrivances I can't be bothered recapitulating - he does get to hit the winning home run for the San Diego Padres on Fan Appreciation Day. And yes, the Padres do appear as themselves in The Darwin Conspiracy, Lord knows why. I mean, the Mariners trying to assassinate the Queen in The Naked Gun was one thing, but this - this is just plain embarrassing!

By the time Andy hits the home run that marks the beginning and the end of his baseball career, Chuck Witzer has destroyed the ice-man, stolen Jack's "formula", and tried (unavailingly, needless to say) to murder Jack and fake his own death before fleeing. Both Jack and Jennifer then fall into the hands of Hollingsworth and his goons, which gives Jack the opportunity to accuse Hollingsworth of plotting to use his discoveries in order to create "super-soldiers for a super-army!" (Well, you knew it was coming, right?) Andy has seen his brother's plight via a series of psychic flashes, and rushes to the rescue, disposing of the heavily armed government goons using - and I kid you not - flying hub-caps. And then, sent on their way with a parting threat from Hollingsworth ("You can run, but you can't hide!" Yes, original SOB, isn't he?), our heroes hit the road. And tragically, thanks to the vagaries of television programming, they're still out there on the road. Just think of it, the adventures they might have had, the two rogue geneticists and the genetically enhanced baseball player! Honestly, I don't know what wrong with those network executives - the possibilities were endless….

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