Exploitation of Character Archetypes in ‘Extreme Measures’

What is the value of a human life? It’s a question that has plagued humanity over the years. However, even as time wears on, it seems that the answer continues to evade us. Some theorists suggest that a human life’s only worth is in relation to the happiness or pain of others. Nevertheless, when viewed in this light, one must ask “Is one human more valuable than the next?” The 1996 film Extreme Measures examines this very question in depth. From the beginning of the film the audience is placed alongside Dr. Guy Luthan as he navigates the moral and ethical minefield that is modern medicine. Although it provokes thought on a grand scale, the film manages to illustrate an impressive show of exploitation in the treatment of several of its characters, namely: the patients, the bad guy, and the good guy.
The large question of the film is, of course, “is it ethical to perform experiments on society’s outcasts?” The film makes every effort to resolve this question, but it does so with a certain degree of prejudice. First and foremost, the use of homeless people to perform medical experiments is undeniably reprehensible. However, it is the treatment of homeless people as arguably sub-human that is just as disturbing. While the film makes the point that Dr. Myrick certainly views these men and women as expendable, the manipulation of these characters is just as upsetting. By selecting a group of people, for example the homeless, that are below the standards of the average film-going audience, it allows the viewers to distance themselves. Furthermore, it allows the people to be lessened in dimensionality. There is only one homeless man, who provides information for Dr. Luthan in exchange for access to prescription painkillers, that is given any real depth and even then, more often than not, he is treated as comic relief. As for the other homeless people, to the movie-going audience, they are by and large expendable. We are shown visuals of the squalor they live in, but it soon becomes clear that their importance to the film’s progression is as objects of pity rather than as fully formed and dimensional characters. This seems to be a case of what the film is talking about in its conclusion of “doing the right thing, but in the wrong way”. This is not to discredit the merits of the film by calling attention to the living conditions of the homeless as well as the decisions that doctors and nurses face daily, but the film’s use of the homeless seems somewhat exploitative.
However, in discussing exploitation, the actions of the film’s villain, Dr. Myrick are definitely applicable. This is seen not only in his methods of testing, but also in the treatment of the villain as a whole. The film makes the case that he is a disgusting human being, especially when even his wife reprimands his actions even after his death. However, no one seems to really discuss his intentions in a serious manner. They are frequently written off as sociopathic or the thinking of a madman. However, while his practice is reprehensible, his ideas are not necessarily as monstrous as the movie paints them out to be. It was his belief that he could cure the world of paralysis at the expense of these people’s lives. Of course in modern times we say that this is disgusting, but it must be recognized that there are legitimate theorists out there that would agree with this plan of action. This is not to say that either way is right or wrong, but the presentation of Dr. Myrick is admittedly predatory. While he subscribes to an antiquated idea, it’s unfair to say that he is necessarily diabolical. However, Dr. Luthan addresses this in his monologue right before Dr. Myrick is shot. He says, “These people didn’t choose to be heroes. You made the choice for them.” This is a valid distinction between Dr. Myrick and other followers of the Hedonistic Calculus, but the film opts for a traditional villain. There is very little complexity applied to this character when, in fact, his actions and his theories indicate that there is a certain amount of depth that is not afforded him. Although the film makes it clear that he is a man capable of great things, it seems to make up its mind for its viewers. While it is true there is a certain level of ambiguity to the film’s last shot, it adheres to cinema’s standard portrayal of “the scientist determined to play God” stereotype. Meanwhile, it allows for Dr. Luthan to remain a hero regardless of what he opts to do with the test results. After all, Dr. Myrick is the one who committed these unspeakable acts of violence, but Dr. Luthan may be able to take the credit by using these findings. This begs the question that if he does so, is he any better than Dr. Myrick? The film refuses to take a strong stance on this either way, but remains as a clear portrayal of the typical good guy versus the evil madman. However, although the film does not address it, the complexity of Myrick’s intentions in contrast to his actions remains.
The final instance of exploitation in the character of Dr. Luthan is perhaps the most literal. From the very beginning of the film, Dr. Luthan is seen as a victim. While he rises to the occasion in the film’s end, at the beginning the audience is shown a very different man. One of the first encounters in the hospital is between a drug addict and a police officer. Both have been seriously injured, but Dr. Luthan encounters a squad of policemen and the officer’s wife who is clearly concerned for her husband. While there is only one OR open, Dr. Luthan opts to take the police officer first. This is clearly a judgment call on his part, but the weight of his wife and co-workers is also a prevalent force. Furthermore, as the film progresses and his search for the truth continues, Dr. Luthan runs into some roadblocks. When cocaine is planted in his apartment and he is discredited, the audience is once again shown a character who is a victim of something bigger than him. This reduces him to a meek figure, making his rise to heroism even more unlikely, but not entirely unlikely. It is only as he departs from the character that we are first introduced to in the film that he begins to show any real control over his situation. He begins to swear and act with a disregard for procedure and a reverence for the truth. This is when the audience can recognize him as more than a tool for the system or even the fall guy, and begins to see the potential for a hero.
The homeless victims, the villain, and the hero are all traditional tools of the film industry. However, it is their exploitation throughout the course of Extreme Measures that makes the film an interesting foray into morality and ethics. While the homeless men and women are seen as victims of Dr. Myrick’s predatory acts, they are seen as little more than objects of pity throughout the course of the film. Even Dr. Myrick himself, who is seen as a monster, is denied any moral complexity and the division between his actions and his intentions is virtually erased. It is Dr. Luthan’s literal exploitation that separates him from the victims and the villain. It is his literal exploitation that shows promise and eventually uncovers a hero.

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