The prospects of human cloning have provided fodder for decades of science fiction stories because they always contain a kernel of truth. Unlike the far-fetched conceits of alien invasions and deep space travel, cloning is tangible to the point where it doesn’t demand extreme suspension of disbelief. The action can take place in a familiar world; the sci-fi ingredients make an ordinary story look like something different. Such is the case with the arid cloning thriller “Womb,” as it uses the subgenre to shelter a screenplay marred by underwritten drama.
Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf directs his first English language feature with a small cast whose performances sustain a distended scenario. Early scenes track the pre-teen beachside romance of Rebecca and Tommy, which ends when Rebecca’s family moves to Japan. In her early 20s, presumably sometime in the near future, Rebecca (now played by Eva Green) comes back and finds herself no less attracted to Tommy’s charms. Tommy (Matt Smith) has blossomed into a neo-hippie activist intent on protesting “cyber-prostitution,” where human clones are created for capitalistic purposes. This introduces the movie’s sci-fi backdrop, and it remains subtle. “Womb” never leaves its barren, naturalistic setting, because Tommy dies in a sudden car accident en route to a protest, leading the bereaved Rebecca to use the emerging cloning technology for her own selfish ends.
Tommy’s tissue sample in hand, Rebecca impregnates herself with his clone, and the years roll by as she raises his clueless new incarnation. Much of “Womb” unfolds during this awkward gestation period, as Rebecca’s sexualized glances at her child as he grows to resemble her dead lover raise the obvious moral questions. Does Rebecca’s attraction to the new version of Tommy form a kind of “artificial incest,” as one character deems it? Or has she resurrected her soulmate?
The set-up is not a terrible idea and certainly has its compelling moments. Unfortunately, most of them arrive in the tense final minutes, when the full weight of Tommy’s existential crisis comes into play. The spare environment — mainly, Rebecca’s claustrophobic wooden beach house and the barren sea community outside of it — means that “Womb” derives its hypnotic effect from a handful of people in close quarters, and they’re given very little to do. Like Fliegauf’s previous feature, “Milky Way,” visuals take prominence. His drawn-out aesthetic impulses supply a series of gorgeous images but his screenwriting provides little dramatic momentum to sustain them.
“Womb” does have its stronger moments, such as when Fliegauf briefly explores the varying opinions about the prospects of using cloning to bring the dead back to life. Lesley Manville, as Tommy’s brooding mother prime, gets an emotional scene in which she reconciles her atheistic tendencies with an ideological opposition to Rebecca’s scheme. But once she takes things into her own hands, it’s a long slog to the resolution. Green’s performance, centered around her droll expression as she continually stares at her growing boy, has its eerie thrills. But Fliegauf puts too much faith in the use of dead silence, resulting in a tone of lifelessness rather than lyricism or suspense.
The static energy is intended to create an unsettling mood from an early point, but the movie only earns its chills later on, with the inevitable confrontation between Tommy and Rebecca about the nature of his birth. At last, “Womb” turns into a sophisticated drama, suggesting that it could have injected that conceptual depth into earlier scenes. Instead, repeating the situational discomfort over and over again, the bulk of the movie amounts to copies of a single good idea, much like the clone in question.