I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Serious Sci Fi: The One

In the 2001 film The One, actor Jet Li plays a couple different versions of Gabe Law. Our protagonist is a version of Gabe Law who is satisfied with his life until another Gabe Law from another dimension comes to kill him. The antagonist (Gabe-Law-killer) is motivated by the fact that when one Gabe Law is killed, his strength and power is distributed to all of the rest. His goal is to kill all other versions of himself and become the one with all of the power. The only thing standing in his way is the fact that our protagonist has gained just as much power as our antagonist and he doesn't want to die.

Modern audiences have very little problem with some version of multiverse theory, which teaches that there are a variety of different universes where the world has changed because someone somewhere made a different decision. Sometimes this is the result of time travel and past intervention (Star Trek) and sometimes the different decision merely creates a tangent universe that cannot be sustained for long (Donnie Darko), but sometimes the universes have presumably always existed (Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy) and the multiverse is either infinite (Sliders) or finite (the DC multiverse is comprised of 52 universes). My point is that your ordinary, everyday citizen of the USA is likely to seriously consider that we live in a universe that is part of a multiverse. Maybe this same citizen believes that there is a nexus of all universes, a place that connects one universe to the next (The Dark Tower series, Captain Britain). As a result, audiences might even take the premise of The One seriously.

I think there are some serious problems in taking a movie like The One seriously. We can probably all agree that if there are multiple universes then corresponding individuals will either experience important life moments (birth, death, etc.) at the same time or at different times. As my buddy David Baggett pointed out to me, multiverse theory has no room for the former, for people to be born and killed at the same time across universes. Certainly, this could occasionally happen in one or two universes, especially if there are infinite universes (the multiverse of The One, however, would have to be finite if antagonist Gabe Law is ever to become the one), but if every decision can change the world then it must be able to change not only when one is born and when one dies, but also whether one is born at all.

This leaves us with a universe where everyone is born and dies at different times. For the sake of simplicity, however, let us line up every birth on a number line; let us assume, for this argument, that every version of an individual is actually born at the same time. According to a bell curve, a few will die far too early, and their power will, almost immediately, disperse to the others, and then much later they will start dying out more consistently. Even if we let each individual die naturally, which is a stretch, there will necessarily be one who dies last. Retirement homes would be packed with superhumans, and if the elderly wished to leave they could easily overpower their captors. Armies wouldn't employ the young anymore. After all, one seventy-year-old could potentially overpower an entire platoon of eighteen-year-olds. The oldest individuals would rule the world, not because of respect or experience, but because nobody could defeat them. Because we do not witness these things, the science behind The One seems to be lacking.

The only way I can think of to mend the multiverse of The One is to suggest that it is much more like Highlander than is superficially evident. The immortals of Highlander can only be killed by the sword of another Highlander, resulting in the quickening, a process where the killer absorbs the victim's powers. For The One to work, only murder by an other-dimensional variant could bring about the power-up. There would have to be different energies assigned to beings of different universes (Fringe, Crisis on Infinite Earths), and that energy itself would have to be the catalyst that distributes the power that once belonged to the victim before death. Unfortunately, the "there can be only one" science (magic?)of Highlander is much harder to swallow than multiverse theory itself.

Even putting aside the difficulties of travel between universes in the multiverse, The One simply seems a little too far-fetched to be considered serious science fiction. Of course, that doesn't make the film any less interesting. As you can probably tell, I found Jet Li's The One incredibly interesting. The One is at least interesting enough to give rise to the preceding essay, and that's more than I can say for a lot of movies!

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