A genetic engineer tormented by the accidental death of his son resorts to cloning in “The Reconstruction of William Zero,” a basement mad-scientist movie from Dan Bush, one third of the team behind 2007’s “The Signal.” Cinematically speaking, this high-concept, low-budget sci-fi mind-bender falls into the same category as Shane Carruth’s shoestring marvel “Primer,” relying on creative ingenuity rather than elaborate effects to keep geek auds ensnared by its multi-layered mystery. But the more apt comparison seems to be with such literary classics as “The Invisible Man” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in which tragedy strikes when mortals fool with Mother Nature.
Four years after backing over his son’s bicycle on the way to work, Next Corp scientist William Blakely (played by co-writer Conal Byrne) still hasn’t found a way to cope with the guilt of his negligence. After the accident, he abandoned his grieving wife, Jules (Amy Seimetz, “Upstream Color”), and bought a house in the suburbs where he could discreetly continue the cloning experiments he’d been doing in the lab — research advanced enough that they can duplicate an organism, rapidly age it and even imprint memories and knowledge within a span of just 15 months.
At Next Corp, they don’t dare engineer anything more advanced than dogs (and good thing, too, since most of the test subjects develop fatal brain tumors), but in his spare time, William has been conducting human trials. Still, Bush doesn’t seem especially interested in ethics — or science, for that matter. Somewhere along the line, he got hooked on the psychology of being a “proxy” (which is what clones are called in the film), pursuing those themes instead.
That could explain what appears to be the pic’s biggest leap of logic — namely, why William decides to clone himself, rather than simply re-creating his lost son, whom we’re told was a miracle of conception the first time around. Sure enough, a grieving grown-up presents far more fascinating narrative potential. William’s proxy awakens in a state of confusion mirrored by the movie itself, which blends jump cuts, handheld camerawork and unreliable expository dialogue to disorienting effect, all compounded by a super-high-contrast look that renders the suburban Georgia locations shadowy and ambiguous.
Suffering from amnesia (or more accurately, awaiting memories to fill the blank slate of his mind), this William believes he has been in a car accident, accepting the fact that his carbon-copy caregiver is his biological twin. The truth is even more complicated than we might first guess, and by the time audiences get caught up with the deliberately obfuscated plot, Bush is dealing with not only clones, but also clones of clones. This nesting-doll approach gives lead actor Byrne a chance to play multiple variations on a character who seemed so deceptively average in the pic’s opening scene, the facets ranging from romantic to outright psychopath.
In time, we come to understand that “William Zero” (as the original is known) doesn’t merely want to duplicate himself; he wants to improve upon his own failings and to create a better, more evolved version, one without guilt, to help Jules through these difficult times. But is the resulting clone even human? Does it have emotions, a conscience or even a soul? Or, as William’s boss (Tim Habeger) puts it, is life merely “the whim of several billion cells to be you for a while”?
In philosophical terms, William’s dramatic “reconstruction” is ripe with possibility, although it spirals off into rather mundane thriller territory when one clone starts going on a killing spree that ultimately puts Jules in jeopardy. (She also might have made a more obvious subject to clone, with all the Pygmalion-like implications that would raise.) Four years is a long time to distract oneself from the business of actually dealing with one’s grief. By the end, the audience, like William, comes to the rather poignant realization that all his experiments in cloning have been merely a smokescreen to avoid the reality of a tragedy that can’t be undone.