Clones at Midnight: Murder and Agency in Elizabeth Harvest and All That We Destroy

Clones at Midnight: Murder and Agency in Elizabeth Harvest and All That We Destroy

Born instantly into our stories, we inhabit them more slowly…some of us never at all. Subject to family, culture, and history, we strive to become active agents, heroes of our stories and shapers of their tides. Crushed or quickened, we become our lives’ captains or drift supine in their seas: lost in their narratives frayed and unformed. In Science Fiction film and literature, some have more stories to inhabit, more stories not truly their own. Clones of originals, they emerge in their stories guests as much as agents, alien to their lives’ events as well as their mysteries. They also have competition–fellow replicas vying for dominance as they strain for sovereignty in their narratives barely theirs…and singularity already granted their “sources.”

They also, to the world around them, have no “souls.” They have no cultural authenticity granting them humanity, the right to claim being and demand its esteem. Such is the dilemma for the clones in Elizabeth Harvest and All That We Destroy, films of similar content if differing themes and tones. Denied human self and value, they are created, abused, and murdered at will with no remorse, much less premise of a crime. Their female bodies and minds are further demeaned by their immediate insertion into violent male fantasy, their bodies relegated to its victims and tragic means of its realization. This makes their–and their successors and predecessors’–crisis temporally, as well as bodily, existential. Their beginning histories false or non-existent, their presents fabricated, and their futures denied, they grasp at the unfamiliar until their own murder comes. Ironically, this fragmentation of lives and bodies gives (just) one authenticity and helm of their story. In both films, they use “false” pasts and presents–and their “sisters”‘ murders–to escape their scourge’s dreams and embody their own

Both Gutierrez’ and Stardust’s films begin with an awakening, a female clone’s birth into adult existence and irruption into her source’s narrative and her predator’s world. In Gutierrez’ Gothic Sci-Fi Elizabeth Harvest, a bride awakens in her already adored husband’s arms. Elated and euphoric, she muses: “I dreamt I would meet a brilliant man; I would steal his breath away, and he–in turn–would steal me away from everything ugly into a secret world of our own.” Her dashing–if substantially older–husband (Henry) carries her across the threshold into her gorgeous futuristic house, plays her Satie on the piano, then makes love to her in their luxurious bedroom. The next morning, he warns her one door in the house is forbidden to her; she enters the door while he is gone, finds numerous clones of her in tanks, then is brutally murdered by her machete-wielding spouse. The wedding, like her presented past had been a fraud. Elizabeth was the fourth clone of her “husband” Henry’s dead wife, a replicant solely formed for his dreams of re-living his wedding night and slaughtering his wife afterwards…her hopeful monologue merely an implant drawing her to her doom

Ashley, in Stardust’s All That We Destroy, wakes up in a similar scenario with a similar impending fate. Unlike Elizabeth, she holds neither halcyon hope nor awareness of her surroundings. And her setting is a small white bedroom with an alien, attractive young man (Spencer), not a splendid manor with her adored husband. Unsure of who she is, and what she is, she seeks aid from her host. Soft-spoken and gentle, he hands her a glass of red wine, has Siri play “their” song, then strangles and bludgeons her to death when she fails to respond. Like Elizabeth, Ashley was made to fulfill her murderer’s twisted dreams. Unlike her, she was not a clone of his wife, or inamorato, but of his first murder victim. His geneticist mother (Victoria) created her as vicarious prey, hoping her cruel sacrifice would thwart his homicidal drive. So, like Elizabeth, Ashley perishes, lost in an alien story of her murderer’s making, one free of her own input, shaping, or will

With no connection to the world or their own pasts, they could not form their presents and stories, much less inhabit and steer them. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted in his Time and Narrative series, successfully forming a narrative of the world, or a life, depends on prefiguring, configuring, and refiguring one’s “field of action.” One must understand the events and codes of the world–and their narrative inside it–to understand and give description to their existence in it. They must also understand narrative “emplotment,” so they can give these events, codes, (and players) an accurate, functional story and roles for them–particularly themselves–to play in it. Finally, they must read and interpret the meanings of the world and the narrative, narrative structures, and narrative elements they assign it, drawing signification and anticipating actions to come. Ashley had no concept of the world around her: she could not understand who she or her murderer was nor perceive the danger she was in. Elizabeth’s pre-wired sense of the world was useless and lethal, guiding her into her husband’s butchery with neither hint nor gloss. Both leave their stories as fogged as they are frightened and savaged.

However, neither of them fully die; their stories extend beyond their murders. Not unlike stages of a human’s life, Ashley–the first of her line of clones–and Elizabeth–the fourth–become stages in a new form of story forbidden privileged humans. For humans, death is both finality and our final, greatest sublimity…never to be used. As existentialist Martin Heidegger noted, “death is a self-possibility of Existence; if one is able to exist, he can absolutely own it.” Ashley and Elizabeth actually can. Like individual selves in a persons life, the Ashley and Elizabeth clones pass on their experiences and memories to their successors, somatic and psychical knowledge for them to better see their world and guide their own stories. Their deaths are particularly effective heirlooms, moments of sublime intensity stirring awakening and foretelling peril. Receiving these gifts without their finalities, one of their descendants truly owns their deaths without death. Shaken from their murderers’ Gothic stories, they can possibly read their worlds and shape and emplot their stories within.

Ashley’s initial successors are not so fortunate. Ashley 2 awakens to similar bewilderment and brutality and a more frenzied Spencer, making her end quicker, but more barbaric…and Spencer still unfulfilled. Hoping to do so, his mother decides to groom the next Ashleys, socialize and feed them curated sprinklings of their past life. Spencer grows frustrated and murders Ashley 3, but her successor–given more time and data–breaches her physical and narrative restraints. Like her preceding self, Ashley 4 is given knowledge and awareness of the world outside the white murder room, some ken of her place in it, and her humanity is acknowledged…if insincerely so. Her extended time of being, however, extends her “field of action” and grasp and command of it. While Ashley 3 had only received misleading bits of her source’s past history, she gains access to her entire file. Childhood pictures bolster her present self, extending her narrative while clarifying her place in it. Recorded messages from her phone inform her of her value–a person cherished, not an object to be destroyed. And her Wanted poster–for armed robbery and fraud–reminds her she is (and was) someone of force and will murdered in a haze, not one broken or lost with victimhood as their essence. Finally, she inherits from her “sisters”–particularly Ashley 3–memories of their horrors, phantasms warning her of her coming danger and raising perception of herself and her world, all vital to refiguring her “field of action” and owning her story

Spencer and Victoria had stolen that from her and her precursors. A fiery outlaw, and still-beloved daughter, the human Ashley Prime had stumbled into the Harris’ spider nest, even making it partially her own. “Their” song–The Babys’ marvelous “Everytime I Think of You”–was her song, the wine and seduction her gambits, but Spencer’s shyness and pretty curls revealed a psychopath seconds too late. However, not for Ashley 4. With her enhanced grasp of her world and self, she begins increasing her perception of it. Scanning Spencer’ s floor, she finds claw marks left by a terrified Ashley 3. Flipping through his sketch book, she finds disturbing drawings of her revealing the killer’s nature. Skulking through her “home,” she finds the oil-filled vat of her “birth,” stirring flashbacks of her cold emergence. These join nightmares of her sisters’ deaths, her recurring visions of hands choking her, and Spencer’s “sick fucking smile.” Before flashing that smile and killing Ashley 3, he sneered at her nescient redundancy, snorting he knew her “before you were even you.” Facing her own death, Ashley 4 rejects this dismissal. When Victoria scoffs at her humanity, calling her a “shadow…a memory of someone,” she responds, “No, I’m me,” proving it by bashing in Spencer’s skull, ending his story while inhabiting her–and her sisters’–own

Elizabeth’s escape, like her lives and final death, is more communal…if equally violent and cathartic. The Elizabeths also pass their experiences to their successors’ nightmares, bolstering their existence while extending their own. However, their successors, in turn, pervade their physical lives–their literal bodies invading their stories, shaking and strengthening their holds on them. Henry had sabotaged Elizabeths 1 & 2 with toxic RNA, and Elizabeth 3 was formed faulty, lost in a bewildering world and even further bewildering memory. Stumbling upon her encased sisters, she makes an abortive escape and is returned to Henry’s murderous arms. For a fleeting moment–when familiar otherness negates her false selfness–she touches authenticity and sense of her story…until her limits and tormentor fail her. Elizabeths 4 and 5 were not so limited; they were already inquisitive, about themselves as much as their new world. Like Milton’s Eve, facing their own image expands awareness of their being and separation from captor and milieu. Elizabeth 4 does so by dancing in front of her bedroom mirror, dilating her sense of self she is unable to save. Elizabeth 5, however, granted greater time, explores and illuminates her self and world further. Erotically kissing her reflection with lips and tongue, she moves her focus from the pre-programmed to conscious authenticity. While the Ashleys needed to re-coup their stolen history, the Elizabeths need to flee their fabricated one. With her burgeoning insight, Elizabeth 5 prepares to do so.

Like Ashley 4, Elizabeth 5 attains great freedom by killing her killer, easing his tyranny over her body and story. Unlike Ashley 4’s, this liberation is not complete. Extending his own life and authority, Henry had cloned himself, blinding and subduing his copy with perverse self-hatred and scorn. So, killing the dominant murderous “father” leaves Elizabeth with the resentful “son (Oliver),” a formidable and dangerous captor in his own right, binding her in chains and assailing her with jealous rage. He was unaware, however, of Elizabeth 6, the clone her precursor had freed in her explorations. Like the violent memory of a preceding clone, the presence of her immediate heir staggers Elizabeth 5, and the crumbling Oliver, providing her carnal cognizance instead of the mnemonic…and death to two of the frenzied trio. One survives, free from her physical and narrative chains. Taking from her sister the true story of her false one, she leaves her prison ready to helm her own. Walking away, she muses: “I dreamt I would meet a brilliant man; I would steal his breath away, and he–in turn–would steal me away from everything ugly into a secret world of our own…but I’m awake now.”