Sunday, 31 December 2017

OtherLife (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Programmer Ren (Jessica De Gouw) and her business partner Sam (T. J. Power) are less than a week away from launching their product OtherLife, a breakthrough in biotechnology that allows them to create and administer virtual experiences; in the space of a minute, a person lives out an entire day’s worth of memories. However, as they are trying to iron out the bugs before the big launch, it seems that Ren has been some work of her own with the tech… and if she isn’t careful, she could be stuck in a virtual nightmare.

De Gouw is incredibly striking as our lead, conveying a definite sense that this is a person brilliant enough to devise the film’s main impossibility, as well as the self-destructive reasons why she did it. Power definitely gets across the avarice and sheer dickery required for the role, but also giving his presence enough of a hesitant air that he comes across more like his ambition just overshadows his foresight; he’s more headstrong than straight-up evil. Thomas Cocquerel as Ren’s boyfriend allows for some nice breathers in-amidst the mindscrews, helped by how he has some decent chemistry with De Gouw. Tiriel Mora as Ren’s father work out quite nicely as the main voice of reason for the narrative, Liam Graham as her brother does surprisingly well considering his utter lack of dialogue, and Clarence Ryan as Ren’s co-worker Byron is okay in the differing modes the script puts him in.

Have to admit, this is another situation like with The Discovery where the initial premise of the film was more than enough to sell me on watching it. Thankfully, this film doesn’t run into the same problem where the premise is literally all it has going for it. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, the film is a lot more focused as far as narrative and themes: It sticks to the main premise and the script builds on it, rather than just trying to double-down on ideas without fleshing them out.
And secondly, it digs a lot deeper into the implications of that main premise. Picking the story up when Ren and Sam are trying to market their product to prospective investors is an obvious but fitting move, since it pretty much forces the film to go into how else this technology could be used. From the surface intentions of creating experiences to more theoretical notions, like use in repairing brain damage, it genuinely feels like the writers here knew where to go with their core idea, something made even clearer with how trippy the visuals can get courtesy of director Ben C. Lucas and cinematographer Dan Freene.

But it doesn’t stop there; it also gets into the psychological and even moral implications of what this technology could provide. Psychologically, it addresses how Joe Bloggs having access to memory-hacking technology could lead to a certain dependency on that tech; even as someone who finds science-fiction involving memory manipulation to be inherently fascinating, the idea of memory junkies is an interesting direction to take things. Morally, we have Sam mentioning how the technology could be used as a means of punishment, allowing a person to carry out a prison sentence in the space of a minute.
Where this gets dicey is when the conversation turns to life sentences, and multiple life sentences at that; just thinking about spending hundreds of years in solitary confinement, all taking place in the blink of an eye, is kind of horrifying on its own. Of course, this gets pushed forward once we actually see the result of such an arrangement, complete with the potential for a glitch that could make the sentence even longer. Apart from the externally punishing ideas, there’s also the internal punishing that could be involved in here as well. The human brain tends to linger on more troubling memories for longer than is usually advisable; just imagine actually reliving those memories in what feels like real time, on demand.

However, as tantalising as all of this is, the story itself is rather straight-forward. When I said that this was more focused as a narrative than The Discovery, that was both a compliment and something of a criticism. I say that because, when the main action of the film starts up, it’s fairly obvious what is going on; it doesn’t even seem like the film is trying to obfuscate the very OG Total Recall touches in the story. It’s bulked out due to Ren’s character arc in connection to the memory manipulation, in particular her relationship with her brother, but it still feels like we’re waiting increasingly impatiently for the conclusion to arrive. In the moment, it works out just fine as a nice slice of psycho-thrill, but that effect diminishes once it sets in that, for a psychological film, it fails a pretty basic tenet of the genre.
Psychological films work on a basis of ambiguity: The less the audience is absolutely clear about, be it about the characters or the plot or even the setting, the easier it is to mess with their expectations and get the pulses to race. Here, because the story enters into this all-too-familiar avenue, the more genre-savvy audiences out there should be to sort the fact from the fiction. Kind of ironic, given the main conceit of creating and rewriting perceived reality and how the film itself is an example of experiencing a large span of fictional time in a condensed space, but that’s where we end up.

All in all, even given the more obvious plot developments, this is still a pretty good serving of local sci-fi. The acting ranges from passable to very solid, with most of the cast managing to convey some rather complex emotions even without the dialogue to assist, the direction employs some old-school kaleidoscope visuals to aid with the intended mindscrewing, and while the writing may turn out some rather predictable moments, it still explores its main conceit to dig up some very compelling ideas about how human beings treat their own memories. Maybe it’s because I’m still sore over The Discovery, but it’s nice seeing an intriguing concept done some justice in the realms of sci-fi, rather than being left to fend for itself.

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