You’ve been wondering what the new RoboCop is like. Brace yourselves…
Overview: The original RoboCop has become one of the “must see” cyberpunk films, one that needs to be in everyone’s cyberpunk movie collection. Now, José Padilha has made an updated version of Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece, leaving many to ask that inevitable question:
Well, much has changed in the world since Peter Weller first donned the RoboCop suit to rid old Detroit of crime. The original was not only a classic story of a man’s death and rebirth as avenging angel, but there was a statement of American consumerism of the 80s as shown in the built-in “commericals”. The new version deals more with America’s reliance on drones to fight wars, the possibility of autonomous drones being used, and of the radical ultra-conservative elements that have cropped up since the end of the Regan presidency.
The Story: The movie opens with a right-wing TV program called “The Novak Element”, starring Pat Novak (Jackson)
Does he look like a bitch?
He has corespondents in Tehran, now under US robot control, who report on a “random” (read: FORCED) scan of the people for threats. A couple of insurgents with vest-bombs kill themselves and destroy some of the bots. One of the insurgent’s son appears with a knife in his hand and is blown away by a mech-like ED-209. The feed is cut and Novak espouses how the robots can be used to make America “safer”, but the Dreyfus Act makes such robots illegal. OmniCorp, a division of Omni Consumer Products, made the robots.
OmniCorp wants the Dreyfus Act terminated so they can sell the robots for American law enforcement use, increasing their profits and achieve world dominance, even though public opinion is against the idea of autonomous drones. Their solution: Create a law enforcement cyborg, a man inside the machine, to sway public opinion, beginning by using a permanently disabled cop.
Detective Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) and partner Sgt. Lewis (Williams) have been tracking crime lord Antoine Vallon, but Vallon is tipped off and Lewis is seriously injured requiring hospitalization. While visiting his partner, Murphy’s car has a bomb planted on it by one of Vallon’s men. It explodes at his home, nearly killing him. He awakens three months later, in his new cyborg body and software thanks to consent of his wife, Clara (Cornish). Murphy doesn’t want to be RoboCop, but is convinced by Dr. Norton (Oldman) to “be strong for his wife and son” and begins training with Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) who seriously doubts Murphy will stand up to highly stressful and/or emotional situations where drones would not be so hindered.
Notable differences. As you can tell, there are some major differences between the two RoboCops. First off, Lewis undergoes the Rule 63 (aka “gender swap”) treatment, and is now a Sargent… and black. OCP, the megacorp that privatized the Detroit police, is now a parent company with OmniCorp as the robotics subsidiary. The “news” is now a right-wing propaganda machine run by the brilliant performance of Samuel L. Jackson (again, does he look like a bitch?). The violence has been toned down considerably… well less bloody anyway. The ED-209s are now mecha-sized, there are more of them, and they are often accompanied by human-sized ED-208s (I think that was the model number used).
Of course, much has changed in the twenty-seven since since the franchise first booted up, so the differences will come as a shock to those who have been watching since those heady early days of cyberpunk. But the biggest shock(s) vets may encounter will definitely be from Robo himself.
“What the hell did you do to me? “
Paint it black. Perhaps the most jarring changes were made to Murphy/Robo himself, primarily in his armor. Oh, it starts as the classic silver-and-black scheme, but CEO Sellars (Keaton) wanted him to look more “tactical,” so black is the new… armor. It’s been said to make him look more insect like,
but it’s actually more of a streamlined borg appearance.
But the biggest change to Murphy is also where the film tends to fall apart most: The original Murphy died and came back as a robo-revenant to avenge himself. This time around, Murphy doesn’t die. That alone kind of puts a damper on the philosophical discussions of whether a human mind can be put into a robot body and still be like before. Here, his mind (well, his whole head… and lungs… and heart… and windpipe) lives on in the new shell.
That doesn’t mean he can’t still be treated like a machine; When he fails a simulation, Dr. Norton tries to “reprogram” Murphy to make him think that all his actions are under his conscious control, even though he’s still running a program. Later, when the upload of the police database causes Murphy to overload emotionally, Dr. Norton reduces his dopamine levels to where he becomes an emotionless robot, even ignoring his own wife and son.
It’s not just OmniCorp that mistreats the new Murphy; It seems everyone involved with getting the Dreyfus act revoked is now using him as their poster boy, their messiah… their “tool” to mechanize America. Even as Murphy “comes to his senses” and goes rogue to solve his own attempted murder the ultra-conservatives and OmniCorp try to spin the events as showing how corruptible humans are and how machines would not be. They even plan to “martyr” Murphy out of fear because his wife went to the press because OmniCorp would not let her see him and might reveal what they did to him. Poor Murph can’t get a break.
But like I said before, much has changed since the 80s. “Hair metal, glam metal,” or whatever-they-want-to-call-it-these-days metal has long had its party ruined by some coffee-gulping Seattle punks which lead to… whatever they call that shit on the radio now (can’t be music). Conspicuous consumerism has been eroded to conspicuous consumer pessimism while megacorps suck up the wealth like some hybrid octopus/shop-vac. And obviously, that one day… which lead to the NSA’s global panopticon and current planet-sized prison. Naturally, if a reboot needed to be made it would have to show the world in current terms as opposed to past expectations, but you’d think they would keep some of the philosophical aspect of Murphy’s transformation. Well, they do, but not in terms of death and rebirth. Rather, Murphy’s transformation and subsequent treatment is more about the dehumanization of a man, and possibly the whole of humanity, in the name of “security”, “peace”, and PROFITS.
Conclusion: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop was certainly the jewel of 80s cyberpunk, and its theme of death and resurection will make this an all-time classic. But you can’t blame José Padilha for wanting to update it to reflect current world events; The times they are a-changin’ (Bob Dylan) and even RoboCop can use an upgrade every so often. The movie works on its own with its theme of corporate dehumanization, so newbies have something to look forward to. As for us veterans… you have been warned.
ONE MORE THING: Samuel L. Jackson… DOES HE LOOK LIKE A BITCH?
Overview: Not often that a good cyberpunk movie comes down the wires. Lately, the better ones have been coming out of Japan’s anime studios. Technotise could be the latest-and-greatest to come from the land of the rising sun… only it came from Serbia, not Japan, although the anime influence can be seen. While not enough to make those famed anime studios nervous… yet… it already has a live-action remake under development.
A sequel based on the comic (readable here, if you understand Serbian), Technotise looks into a bit of the the life of a college girl as she faces a struggle in Belgrade 2074 that could kill her.
The Story: Edit Stefanović is a psychology major in a Belgrade college. Like most students, Edit has had her successes and failures but mostly failures. Now her professor has given her an ultimatum:
“Pass or GTFO.”
After burying her robotic pet, and a fight with her mother, Edit decides to get a memory chip implant to help her pass the exam. She is also an intern at TDR, a research company that’s been working on a formula that connects all the energies in the world, aka “A direct line to God.” This “formula” can be used to predict the future, but any computer that calculates it becomes sentient before it shuts down. Abel Mustafov discovered the formula before becoming autistic, and when Edit sees a “graph” of the formula, her chip becomes alive and starts wiring itself into her body, making her act weird (like eating large amounts of iron). Now TDR wants Edit and the chip for their future-telling computers, while Edit wants what the chip did to her undone.
Algorithm Absurd. This phrase is used a couple of times to describe what happens to the computers that calculates the formula. Algorithm - like a computer program; A series of finite steps to generate an output from input. Absurd, the ludicrous, insane, irrational. The phrase is simply another way of saying: “That does not compute.” Apparently the computers see the formula like a digital existential crisis, one that says machines are not alive. But Edit’s chip doesn’t suffer the same fate, probably because of their connection to each other, or maybe because of Edit’s study of psychology she was able to “understand” the graph in a way that computers couldn’t so she acted as a “buffer” and the chip was able to process her output.
The next GITS? Like GITS, Technotise uses a variety of animation styles to produce some high quality movie fare. 2D, 3D, vector, and realistic static drawings come together for some of the best eye-candy. But without a good storyline, all you can get from eye-candy is diabetes. Fortunately, Technotise has the storyline to back up the visuals. About the only problem is the language is entirely Serbian with English subtitles so you might miss out on some of the vids.
“I have nothing against plastic but sometimes you have to make out with some real meat.”
Conclusion: With the themes of the search for “God” via science and our continued interconnection of human and machine, we have some excellent cyberpunk fare to even anime fans happy for the next decade or so. This is one animated movie that can go byte-by-byte with GITS. Just get the DVD and see what I mean…
Suppose it were possible to transfer, from one mind to another, the experience of another person; Any person, any experience. (From the trailer.)
Overview. Released fourteen months after Tron, Brainstorm continues the theme of virtual reality’s effect on humanity. Ever since Tron there have been movies about virtual reality, even though it never really panned out the way many envisioned… with the head-mounted displays being the primary reason why. But that didn’t stop Hollywood from envisioning VR. Brainstorm does it a bit better than more recent efforts, even though Natalie Wood died while filming was on Thanksgiving break in 1981. Trumbull was able to complete the movie for 1983 by using body doubles and stand-ins, and offers a dedication “To Natalie” in the credits.
The Story. Doctors Lillian Reynolds (Fletcher) and estranged couple Michael and Karen (Walken and Woods) have created a helmet-like device called “the hat,” which can record the experiences… not just sight and sound, but smells, tastes, etc… of a person wearing it. The recording can then be played back on the hat by anyone else who gets to experience the same sensations the recorder experienced. Word of the hat’s breakthrough allows the group to have a larger budget and access to advanced technologies to make the hat more compact and easier to wear. It soon becomes something like a headband or Walkman-style headphones without the earpieces.
That looks like fun to wear… for a couple of hours.
Soon, the US Military wants access to the technology for yet-to-be-specified reasons (Missile guidance? Remote drone piloting?), but Reynolds refuses. She soon suffers a heart-attack while working alone and make a recording. Michael discovers the tape and replays the experience… and nearly dies from it. Despite that, he wants to see what the rest of the tape is about, but he is denied access to the tape and the labs.
Military using VR. What could possibly go wrong? Apart from the possible military applications of the hat, the obvious problem of addiction arises as a colleague has to retire when he experiences sensory overload on a “sex tape” another made and shared. Later on, Michael experiences a past argument with his estranged wife from her point of view. This shows that not only physical sensations can be recorded and transferred, but feelings as well.
This aspect seems to be what the military is most interested in, as Michael discovers the system has been hijacked for “Project Brainstorm” as a torture and brainwashing system. Unfortunately, his son tries the interface while the torture program is running and suffers a psychotic episode.
In theory, a person’s entire personality and psyche could be permanently altered by using the hat to expose them to another person’s past traumas and subconscious nightmares.
But Michael is more interested in finishing Lillian’s final tape to “have a scientific look at the scariest thing a person ever has to face.” This is where Brainstorm departs from sci-fi to metaphysics; Whether there is an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, and all that. That may not be the most cyberpunk thing to deal with, but then dealing with our mortality is part of our humanity whether it’s our own or someone we know.
Conclusion. Somehow, Brainstorm got lost in the shuffle of 80s cyberpunk movies, even though it could have stood up to much of today’s “cyberpunk” fare. The theme of life-after-death captured by technology is eerily in sync with Natalie Wood’s death during a break in shooting. While the visuals do seem dated, they are effective enough to carry us through Lillian Reynold’s final moments.
If you haven’t seen Brainstorm before, or haven’t seen it since it was first released, you should give it a(nother) view. You might be surprised by this little known classic.
Overview: I heard about this movie from the Columbia House DVD club, then bought it after reading the description. After doing some research about it and learning about it being released direct to home video, I got to watch it… and found out why it went direct to video. To take some of the best cyberpunk themes, add some major star-power, then squander it on what would have worked better as a television pilot episode only shows that cyberpunk still has Hollywood seeing $$$ despite recent failures like Repo Men.
Just a few years from now, corporations control and observe everything.
Luke Gibson (Gooding) and his pregnant wife get involved in a car accident. She dies on the scene, and he is hospitalized with brain damage (amnesia) and no insurance. The Hope Corporation finances his brain operation, which involves a Psi-Comp implant on his visual lobe. He soon starts having hallucinations, which are commercials that only he can see and hear. But hackers manage to tap into the implant and give him messages which lead him to Keyboard, a former Hope employee turned hacker, who has information that can stop The Hope Corporation’s plans for the implants.
Cyberpunk themes… they got ‘em. There’s little question about this being cyberpunk; It’s practically dripping with cy-punk themes throughout. The Psi-Comp implants can be used to control people, either with persistent commercials or a painful “fail-safe” that can blow your head off, depending on how Hope Co. feels about your finding out about the truth about them. The hackers try to free Luke from Hope’s control over him by using the implant themselves. Hope Co’s. cameras everywhere watching most everything that goes on. There’s even holographic projections of corporate brands above and on cityscapes and landmarks, owing to how corporations had bail out governments due to their failed bailouts. About the only thing missing would be the dystopic atmosphere, though through sound bytes from televisions indicate that the dystopia is financial.
So what could (or did) possibly go wrong? With Hardwired’s abundance of cy-punk themes, it might be hard to imagine that this could not be the next Blade Runner. That might be the big problem: It’s trying to be the next Blade Runner. Not that aspiring to be such a classic is a bad thing, it’s just most cyberpunk movies lately are trying to be Blade Runner, and they try so hard that they ultimately fail to be even a good movie. Let’s try to make a good movie first, then you can try being Blade Runner. Best way to start is to actually do something with those themes. It’s obvious the makers seem to know about what cyberpunk is, but it’s also obvious they don’t know what to do with it all. Maybe they should hang out here for a while…
Are you certain that the one on the left is Punk Blue and not Punk Green?
Another problem is more “technical,” the operation scene when Luke gets the implant. Inside the operating room, Luke is sitting upright, but a scene through a security cam (assumed to be in the same O.R.) shows him lying down, face up, even though the doctor just finished drilling into the back of Luke’s neck. It’s not like every movie is one-hundred percent accurate, but such noticeable goofs early on can make the rest of the film less believable. Also, the hackers use the chip to send Luke information a la “augmented reality.” His eyes were not replaced with holographic projectors, so we should not be able to see the transmitted data in front of his face. Seeing that stuff as Luke sees it, first-person like, would have worked better.
Conclusion: It’s hard to put Hardwired down because it has a great idea, but some bad implementations may have doomed it to direct-to-video hell and lack of reviews. The only other review called it “cheesy, seriously cheesy.” Plus, the ending practically begs “please let us become a franchise,” though it might serve better as a pilot for some futuristic TV series. Maybe.
So much potential…
It looks like Bruce Willis now has some competition for the most WTF hairpiece.
Overview: There have been some truly interesting projects in the no-budget Sci-Fi indie movie business. One of the most impressive is Jason Tomaric’s Cl.One. Made for a budget of only 25,000, Tomaric tapped into the power of mass collaboration to solicit help from half the city of Cleveland, Ohio. While I might have a number of issues with the movie itself, nobody viewing the effects and look of Cl.One would ever think they were produced on a shoestring. In short, the Tomaric was able to pull together a far more professional looking movie based on personality alone. In a Wired article, Tomaric guestimates that he received somewhere between 1.7 to 2 million in free goods and services. The tagline for this movie is “3,000 extras. 48 locations. 650 digital effects…. Made by one kid out of his parents’ basement.” Count me as impressed!
The Story: Due to a horrible nuclear world war, the last vestiges of humanity can no longer procreate. The damage caused by radiation has genetically mutated the remaining inhabitants. So now, humanity exists in pockets of globed cities that are administered in a surveillance-type society mode. The cities are connected via a series of high—speed tunnel trains. The hope is that genetic research and cloning will offer a continuation of the species. Unfortunately, an anti-government resistance movement called Spectrum has also arisen.
Unfortunately, cloning seems to yield fully formed, but soul-less, mindless humans. In essence they are empty shells. To transform these clones into living beings, it is hypothesized that a human will be found who’s DNA has not been irradiated, and who’s genetic sequence will be an exact match needed to give life the clones. In doing so, humanity’s future will be restored.
Chancellor Derek Strombourg, the head New Athens who is beset by the loss of his only child who died due to radiation damage, has created a school of the best and brightest. But this is just a front for his real goal – to test all students with the hopes of finding the “one” – the one with the genetic match necessary to bring the dormant clones to life. After four years of searching, he finally has a match - Student Orin Stalward. To make this work, he has to initiate the experiment right at the moment that Stalward is planning on taking his own life. To make matters worse, Spectrum, the anti-government “terrorist” organization headed up by Joshua Adams is causing significant problems to Strombourg’s leadership, both in its attacks and in its intrusion into Orin’s life.
The Pacing and Story Issues: From a pacing standpoint, Cl.One starts off with an impressive “bang” and goes downhill from there. Cl.One is at best a very complicated story. I consider myself fairly astute at this point in picking up various cyberpunk themes and storylines, but still found that it took me two or three viewings just to get the jist of Cl.One’s basic plot (this is different from say, taking two or three viewings to “figure out the meaning” of movies like Oshii’s Avalon for instance). Adding to this is the relatively meandering pacing, where most of the story complications are narrated. If you aren’t awake enough to catch and assimilate a myriad of facts in seemingly innocuous dialogue moments, you’ll miss the meaning of the later scenes. In totality, the project doesn’t come together. There are a lot of interesting themes and ideas, but the execution falls short. Had they done this over, my suggestion would be to transform more story points into active story points versus narrating or orating them over a the first third of the movie. Even more problematic is the change in actor focus near the end of the movie – the “exciting mindfuck twist” finish at the end is always cool, but the change of context really muddies the overall experience.
The Acting: The acting in Cl.One is certainly nothing to write home about. Jeff St. Clair as Derek Strombourg is really the only one who delivers a consistent performance. That said, there are very few clunkers either. Nobody truly embarrass themselves, and you never really get the feeling you’re watching a cheesefest trainwreck. While this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, keep in mind that this cast is almost comprised completely of amateurs. Not even the director had any experience prior to this shoot. While there were few clunkers, there was also distinct lack of emotional “umph” that really detracted from the overall experience. The stilted, uneven dialogue dialogue contributes to this in that it really doesn’t give the cast much to work with. Everyone was playing their parts but the performances as a whole came off as flat, which reflected poorly on an already slow-paced flick.
The FX: One of the best ways to cut corners on low-to-no budget science fiction projects is the selection of interesting locations. Cl.One excels in transforming seemingly ordinary locations into cool science-fiction settings. In all, fourty-eight Cleveland locations where used, including a nuclear power plant, a jail and Nasa locations. But perhaps the most interesting was the laboratory, which was created in a beer brewery. While one or two of the FX scenes look cheap (primarily the train sequence), the majority of the CG used in this Cl.One worked wonderfully. The FX and overall production values were generally what you would expect from a professional film, not a no-budget indie flick. Cl.One creates a look similar to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, in that the entire film has been sent through digitized color filtering. While the overall look was professional, it served to drab-down the picture, which didn’t work well when combined with flat acting and slow pacing.
Blank Clone Bodies? One of the “take on faith” science points that Cl.One asks the viewer to swallow is the idea that they can make cloned bodies which are “blank” – meaning they have no soul, no memories and no personalities. The big challenge involves figuring out how to make these blank bodies get magically filled by finding the right matching genetic sequence to give life to a thousand frozen embryos. . All sorts of questions that might go through your head are all bypassed – why can’t the way that cloning today works still work in the future? Also, if they have all this expertise at genetic engineering to the point that they “know” the match they need, why can’t they modify the genetic code prior to uploading? Even more problematic, if they are transferring DNA sequences, why does the state of the person whom the DNA is from matter (Orin needed to be suicidal for his thoughts to not transfer to the clones)? You can ask those questions if you buy-in to the idea that clones can be made without souls or thinking, etc. This is an extreme version of the blank-slate approach, one which is nonsensical on its face, and one which they provide absolutely no rationale for in the narrative.
The Bottom Line: Cl.One has some terrific things going for it, but in the end, I like the background story of its production far more than I like the movie itself. Truly, I absolutely loved the “making of” featurette. That large segments of Cleveland pitched in for free to make this movie is a crowing achievement, one which should be celebrated. In orchestrating this dynamic, Jason Tomaric shows himself to be a true film making talent. And while the lighting and production values are high quality, the movie itself just doesn’t come together. The score is way too emotional and dominating when matched with the scenes, the actor performances and dialogue. The story doesn’t hold together, and the “twist” near the end makes you seriously question the character focus choices throughout the movie. On a positive note, the lighting and visuals were consistently interesting. Because of this and the background of the production, I would recommend Cl.One to anyone interesting in indie Sci-Fi flicks.
Uneven, satirical, and oddly prophetic in its own half-baked way, Michael Crichton’s 1981 film Looker takes place in a terrifying universe of glamour, dehumanization, corporate deception, and Susan Dey hooking up with Albert Finney.
SFAM NOTE: We welcome new reviewer Dan Swensen, who also runs a terrific Sci-Fi blog called the Dimfuture.net. If others are interested in joining the review team, please post a message in the review forum.
Overview: The year is 1981, and pudgy, befuddled plastic surgeon Larry Roberts (Finney) becomes involved in a mystery when one of his models, dissolved in tears, arrives in his office raving hysterically about mysterious people trying to kill her. Hours later, the model inexplicably falls from the window of her high-rise apartment, and evidence of foul play points to Roberts himself. Justifiably concerned, Roberts begins playing amateur detective, teaming up with his patient (the vapid and insecure Cindy Fairmont, played by Susan Dey) to find out what’s really happening to these models, who seem to be dying off in droves shortly after visiting Roberts’ office to be “perfected.”
Mostly relying on the incompetence of the antagonists and the near-complete apathy of the cops, Roberts eventually tracks the clues back to a company called Digital Matrix, a computer graphics and advertising firm that specializes in creating digital replicas of top commercial models. While these models are given lucrative contracts in exchange for their digital likenesses, they seem to mysteriously die shortly thereafter, their handsome royalties left unpaid. It doesn’t take long for Roberts to figure out that Digital Matrix is duplicating these models, then killing them off, as their “digital doubles” will do their job better — and for free.
Machines and Misogyny: In an age where digital replacement and enhancement of actors is now extremely commonplace, Looker seems both surprisingly relevant and woefully dated at the same time. Penned in by Hollywood’s desire for complete perfection, the models of Looker fret over millimeter-sized flaws, consumed with self-loathing over even the slightest imperfection. As the story progresses, the audience finds this to be more than mere vanity — in Crichton’s world, Digital Matrix has reduced human behavior to a set of algorithms, able to determine (and manipulate) the focus of a viewer’s attention with ultimate precision to maximize product exposure and desire.
Because these manipulations require inhuman accuracy, the models themselves soon become not only obsolete, but liabilities to the company. The theme of dehumanization — the models looked upon by the corporations, and themselves, not as human beings but commodities to be used up and thrown away — is very strong in the first half of the film, underlined by a casual misogyny that may or may not have been intentional (it was 1981, after all).
In addition to the prophetic “digital doubles” of the film, Looker’s most science-fiction invention is the L.O.O.K.E.R. device (short for Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses), a “light gun” that stuns and paralyzes the target using light. Anyone exposed to this weapon experiences a sort of “missing time” as they stand paralyzed, allowing the weapon’s user to move around, invisible and undetected, for short periods. Digital Matrix uses the device to cover their tracks, making the models’ deaths appear as suicides.
While Looker is more than a bit plodding at times, the film’s use of this device is undoubtedly the most clever effect in the film, as characters find themselves losing time without knowing how or why. (It’s also worth mentioning that the L.O.O.K.E.R. device is the movie’s only real special effect, and provides the film’s most interesting visuals.) The L.O.O.K.E.R. device is a neat little concept, one I wish could have gotten better treatment in a better film.
The Bottom Line: Unfortunately, Looker is a movie with a few good ideas that don’t quite survive the runtime. The last half-hour of the movie is an extended game of “humorous” cat-and-mouse in which the heroes and villains chase each other through a virtual landscape of digitized commercials — the best of which is a genuinely macabre moment featuring digitized kids complaining about their breakfast cereal as a real human lies dead on the prop kitchen table.
While these scenes are mildly funny on a multitude of levels (the style of commercials, for all their “digital” glory, are more akin to something out of the Fifties than anything out of science fiction), they’re out of tone with the rest of the film. Albert Finney is no action hero, and doesn’t even have the charisma necessary to be a good everyman. Susan Dey’s character is too insecure and flat to be anything but an object of pity, and James Coburn’s turn as the villain, while passable, is too brief to be interesting.
A mustachioed Eighties thug gets a taste of the L.O.O.K.E.R. device.
That’s not to say that the film can’t be enjoyed as good cheese, however — there are some amusingly inept moments (watch for the car “crashing” into the fountain), and the few special effects are decent enough. Overall, Looker is probably more interesting as a historical piece than as a thriller — though it’s dated badly on a number of levels, the ideas of dehumanization and artifice that it puts forth were, for 1981, surprisingly forward-thinking. It might also be interesting to note that Looker made the first real attempt at a realistic CGI character, as well as the first movie to used 3-D computer shading.
After its release in theaters, Looker haunted the bleak hinterlands of early Eighties cable television for awhile (probably sandwiched somewhere between showings of Krull and The Entity), and is out on DVD now. Oh, and if you care about that sort of thing, Susan Dey is naked in it.
Overview: Code 46 is a movie that generates significant disagreement on ratings. The pacing is glacially slow, but there are enough interesting ideas that many viewers will really dig the final product. Viruses as transhuman upgrades, memory removal, and problems brought on by mass cloning all are mashed together to give an interesting, but somewhat incoherent view of a near-term dystopic future. The cinematography is interesting, and the story itself may end up working well enough for some to enjoy the final product.
The Setting: Code 46 takes place in a non-specific near future, where overpopulation and degradation of the earth have led to a situation where cities have become protected entities. The population is now divided into those living in the outside and those citizens who have rights to live within. Each city has restricted access – a person is required to have “papelles” (a valid passport/visa) to enter. For some reason, even though there is massive overpopulation, cloning has been used in an overabundant fashion. There is even a law, Code 46, which restricts the relations between those who are genetically similar. Viruses have been genetically engineered to allow new capabilities for people, but also have become so deadly that people must have a valid insurance policy to stay in the city.
The Story: William Geld, played by Time Robbins, is an insurance investigator imbued with an empathy virus, who’s been tasked to track down a forged papelle ring in Shanghai. Shortly after arriving, William quickly determines that the guilty party is a worker named Maria Gonzales (Samantha Morton), but he doesn’t turn her in. For some reason, even though he is happily married, he is strangely attracted to Maria, so he falsely implicates someone else. After following her home, Maria and William become fall for one another. William leaves the next day for home, but is brought back a few weeks later when the forged papelles continue to be produced. He decides to turn Maria in, but she has left. After investigating, he finds that she had incurred a code 46 violation. William fears that he is the genetically similar party and sets off to find her.
The Acting: Director Michael Winterbottom seems to be going for a Lost in Translation type vibe, but this feel doesn’t really work very well. The leads both turn in believable performances, but something is missing. While the world certainly has an alienated feel, there’s never a sense that the chemistry William and Samantha is strong enough to support a “genetic attraction.” It’s all cerebral. Unfortunately, with the rediculously slow pacing of the movie, this merely adds disconnectedness with the audience.
Viruses as Genetic Upgrades: In Code 46, custom made viruses are used for short to long term sensory upgrades. William has an “empathy” virus which allows him to read people’s thoughts. Other viruses allow skills to be developed. The weird thing about the use of viruses as an idea for genetic manipulation is that it causes all sorts of dangerous linkages. For instance, viruses can be passed on, and worse, can change over time. This, I think, is why insurance may play such a large role in Code 46, and why the cities are cordoned off (again, this isn’t really explored all that well). It does make you wonder though, how exactly will genetic manipulation be used in the future? If we are to look for transhuman-like upgrades, are we going to be purchasing an ensemble of cocktail viruses?
Futuristic Low-budget Worldbuilding: Without a large budget, and the absence of CG, director Winterbottom struggles to make his world look futuristic. Mostly based on locations, Winterbottom also emphasizes pastel florescent shades to indicate futurism. Pastel florescent pinks, greens, and blue tones are used in most of the otherwise normal looking city scenes. The outside world is mostly desert, apparently brought on by the effects of global warming, whereas the people all dress like they’re in New Dehli. The night scenes are generally neon shots of Shanghai, which sort of fit in the cyberpunk, near-future genre. Still, there are glaring problems which break suspension of disbelief, where the futuristic world looks identical in most places. The most obvious one deals with the liberal use of modern day cars - apparently the auto industry got laid off after 2003. A cheap solution would have been to jimmy up a few futuristic fiberglass bodies to stick on-top of a jeep or VW, but instead, we are almost left with an alternate view of the present.
Cyberpunk Tower of Babel – the Creole Merging of Languages: In Code 46, English seems to be the only language used, but it has been “creoled” in that many of the words have been replaced with words from other languages. Boy and girl is now chico and chica; paper is now papelle; hello has been transformed to “meehow”; discontinued is now discontinuago. The cool part about this is how naturally the actors work the word changes into the dialogue. The problematic part of this is that within 50 years or less, the world (even if only the industrial parts) would transform into a single language. If there even is a trend toward this, I think we’d be looking more like 300-500 years for a place like Shanghai to do away with their native Chinese. The more interesting question this raises though is the issue of whether the human race is moving toward a reverse Tower of Babel, or whether the local cultures will become more entrenched as a defense against a globalized language and culture. The world is getting smaller all the time – the implications of this are far from understood right now.
Cyberpunk Oedipus Complex: Harkening back to Freud, Code 46 explores the issue of a man in love with his mother. In Code 46, this connection is so strong that it exists even when the relationship itself is not known to the participants. Personally, I never bought into anything as generalized as Freud’s Oedipus complex, and I don’t know that it works all that well here. But the genetic/cloning slant to this question certainly raises some interesting thoughts. Still, with the advent of overpopulation, its hard to see why people would resort to making an abundance of clones. Perhaps for nefarious thoughts such as body replacement parts, but it would be a stretch for an overpopulated world to create massive versions of the same person. Based on the huge insurance slant in Code 46, we might assume it had something to do with contaminated bodies, but like so many other aspects of this future world, this is never really explained.
Removal of Memories: The idea of memory modification and their removal has been explored in other movies (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance), but the general question is probably similar. Are memories discrete entities that can be targeted and wiped out, or is something more organic going on? Also, if your spouse cheats on you, will a future option for conflict resolution be to simply have the memories of the offending person and the deed itself removed? If so, would you still think your spouse cheated?
The Bottom Line: Although the plot runs at a glacial pace, and the chemistry between the actors is stilted at best, the inclusion of interesting thoughts, however haphazard, potentially make Code 46 worth a watch. I would have liked to see a bit more clarity on the basis for the technology selections, and definitely would have liked to see more emotive chemistry between the leads. The “Lost in Translation” vibe just doesn’t work here all that well. Bottom line, if you’re someone who doesn’t mind watching interesting looking paint dry, you might end up liking Code 46.
Overview: UCF: Toronto Cybercide is an attempt to create a 70s style police show done up in futuristic cyberpunk. This is a production done by an enterprising group of amateur film makers called Key Pixel: Gathering of Filmers. As a review, this is a slightly different review than many I have done previously, in that I fully realize that this movie is no-budget, and is produced by highly motivated, but amateur film makers. I had previously decided not to give it a star rating, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to consider it in many ways as I have the rest. This review will spend more time than most on details of what I thought really worked well, along with what I felt really needed improvement.
The Story UCF: Toronto Cybercide takes place over 70 years into the future. Some aspects of society have collapsed, but the police are still on the job. A team of detectives, Sue (played by Sylvia C. Andreae), a tough action chick with a cybernetic arm and Jazz (played by Andrew Hookway), an emotive family guy, are sent to investigate some strange cyber deaths, and end up getting involved in a “good cyborg gone bad” story. Here to assist with the investigation is the almost-human Marshall Pax, a cyborg from the Unified Cybernetics Foundation. Together they must root out mafia involvement and stop the Nemesis (played by Justin Monk - and what cool name for an actor!) from randomly killing Toronto’s inhabitants.
Narrative Issues: The underlying idea for Toronto Cybercide (70s cop show done in cyberpunk) is very interesting in scope, and if executed well, provides enough grist for cyberpunk enthusiasts to sink their teeth into some neat concepts. While some aspects worked well, there were a few key scenes that really could have significantly improved the overall experience.
The Introduction: While the text was interesting, the way it was implemented made it virtually impossible to get the context. The text wasn’t sequential, and each line started at a different time. This meant that you had to almost go back and rewind for each line to complete and then try to piece it together to figure out what was happening. Even then, we miss out on why the future still has CRT monitors, current model cars, modern phones and 1940s phones together, etc. The luddites are mentioned, but really only in passing.
Transition leading up to the final battle: The transition leading up to the final battle is virtually nonexistent. There really should have been a scene or two leading up to how and why all three parties came together. All we are given is that a trap has been sprung by the mafia, and that the police magically seem to know where.
Why don’t we get to see the Nemesis? The bulk of the complexity in character development involves the Nemesis, but unfortunately we rarely get to see this. To the extent he shows up, we get no sense of the internal conflict taking place within the Nemesis. Toronto Cybercide really could have benefited from two scenes (one near the beginning, and one after the kitchen scene) that explored this conflict.
Why is the Cyborg eating regular food? One of the challenges here was in trying to make the Marshall otherworldly. The kitchen scene gives a good opportunity to show him eating a fabricated food source. Instead, he is eating milk and cake.
The Cinematography: Kovacs strong point seems to be in constructing some interesting visuals and textures. While many scenes were average, every now and then we’d get a terrific perspective shot, or angle which really added to the context of the scene. Toronto Cybercide is definitely at its best when going for a noir feel. Grays, blacks, overexposed whites and reds worked FAR better than the background soft yellow scenes. And while some scenes were exceptional, others, such as the dust scene sorely detract from the suspension of disbelief. Like the sound, consistency in crafting is definitely advocated.
The FX: The FX is very low budget, in sort of a Dr. Who sort of way. For the most part, it works though. The laser gunshots were decent enough, and while the cybernetic arm could have been better, Andreae (Sue) worked it very effectively in the action scenes to the point that it was very believable. Perhaps the coolest one, as was pointed out on the directors commentary was the knife in the book in the Club Red scene – this just worked wonderfully and really helped sell Sue’s strength. Also terrific though was the Luddite TV screen - this more than any other FX scene left a sense of a different time and place.
The Editing: For the most part, the visual editing in Toronto Cybercide really works. The pacing is solid, and most all of the investigation and action scenes work. In particular, the early battles and chase scenes really held together well, while the last fight scene came across as a tad too haphazard. The only early shot that really stuck out as wildly problematic was a quick camera jerk near the beginning when the long-haired minion was bitching about following “his part of the deal.” This could have been spliced a bit to become more workable.
The Acting: The acting in Toronto Cybercide is far from top notch – then again, this is to be expected in an amateur production. As a clear standout, Bryan Patrick Stoyle as Marshall Pax turns in a very credible performance as a stoic, post-human cyborg. More problematic were the two cops, Sylvia Andreae and Andrew Hookway. Part of the issue is they are attempting to be your traditional 15 year, jaded cop types – this was just a hard sell both due to their age, and unfamiliarity with jaded cop stuff. From a narrative perspective, their performance would be greatly aided had it been set up that most cops had already been wiped out, and that these were junior cops thrust into events greater than they were experienced to handle. This would have played far better to their age, character development and overall performance. If there was one change I would make though, it would be eliminating Kovacs’ Matrix Merovingian nod – that scene in the Club Red CLEARLY indicates how good an actor Lambert Wilson in the Matrix sequels really is. Kovacs’ acting works well in most scenes, but that dialogue stretch will get a deservedly horrid groan from all viewers.
The Music: For the most part, the electronic music accompaniment is one of the best crafted aspects of Toronto Cybercide, and adds well to the mood of many scenes. Simple movement music, such as the background for the train station scene, work wonderfully to pick up the pace. The best use of sound accompaniment was probably the emotive flashbacks that Marshall Pax. The worst was definitely the ending battle. There the music was sort of a slow, ongoing, day to day sound for a scene that needed high tension, fast paced accompaniment.
The Sound: The sound in Toronto Cybercide is sometimes great, sometimes horrid. In most scenes, we get either great background sounds or solid transfer’s of action from the left to right speakers, that carefully mimic the movement of those on-screen. These, when combined with the fast-paced electronic background accompaniment really add to the moment. In some scenes, the mix clearly needs LOTS more work – all too often the levels seem to shift dramatically, especially with the inclusion of needless white noise (the kitchen scene is probably the worst instance of this). Far worse though was a scene near the beginning - we even get an ultra-loud, high pitch sound that dominates the speakers for no particular reason – this occurs a time or two later as well. Aside from this though, clearly a lot of work to the sound FX
Best line of the movie - “Not once…did he try to grab my ass.”
Creating a Cyberpunked World Without A Budget: One of the real challenges that Kovacs and company deal with is creating a futuristic cyberpunked world on no budget. I must applaud them for making an attempt such as this, and truly hope to see more efforts such as this. Their challenge is especially problematic in that they are basically stuck with their local surroundings. Kovacs often addresses this by almost attempting to do sort of a staged play approach, where most scenes take place in barren rooms - the audience is left to fill in the details for themselves. He also attempts retrograde technology approaches, such as using 1940s phones for communications. And while some of the scenes work well, there is clearly a lot to be improved. In too many shots, we get close-ups of current year cars, lamps, and a myriad of other current-technology items that suspend disbelief. A better approach might have been to use close-up shots in cars, and so forth so as not to give away the actual “look” of the vehicle used. If they are forced to show these things, there needs to be something in the intro about describing why technology hasn’t advanced (as a counterpoint, Puzzlehead does fairly decent world-building rationales on a very low budget). In truth, the explanation on the movie cover is almost required to get the jist of the world:
In 2078 something had stopped the motor of the world.
Decades later, civilization is still recovering from the global network crash. In this post-dystopian age, remnants of the old technologies remain, including cyborgs and man-machine interfaces. To regulate the disaffected remnants - colloquially known as ‘Burnouts’ - the Unified Cybernetics Foundation is formed to deal with post-human law enforcement.
It is now 2106, one hundred years in the present. When two Toronto police detectives are caught in the middle of a specific multiple murder case involving Burnouts, UCF sends one of their Marshals to assist.
And when the Foundation gets involved, nothing is ever simple.
Toronto Cybercide works best in darker, shadow-filled scenes such as the shot above. A Noir look is a useful way of getting around technology shortcomings. More problematic though is the lack of exploration of the dynamics of the world itself. On Kovacs and Hookway’s commentary, they mention the concern in spending too much time on expository scenes. While I agree with the concern, this isn’t the only way the technology impacts on society can be conveyed. Character explorations and build-ins to the scenes themselves provide the grist for world building. Case in point – early in the film, our detectives do the traditional intro talk with the police chief. This would be a great scene for providing insight on how a police station might work differently in a cyberpunked world 100 years from now - instead, we get the chief typing away on a keyboard while staring at a CRT monitor. How about an earpiece, possibly an eye cover, and a VR glove where the police chief is interacting with a large flat screen? We wouldn’t even need to see the flatscreen to get a sense that things are different. If this makes no sense due to degredation in the technology, I’m sure that there could have been some way of conveying difference in surroundings here, without resorting to high-tech FX.
UCF Toronoto Cybercide - When Good Cyborgs Go Bad: The underlying challenge involves a specially trained marshall cyborg (the Nemesis) infected with a signal contagion. This contagion creates a complex dynamic where the Nemesis’ human portion is working hard not to allow the infection to spread, while at the same time, he is no longer in control of his actions. In an environment where we see a continual merging of man and machine, its only a matter of time before issues like this become a concern. The psychological aspect of an augmented person losing a battle over his humanity is definitely something that should require more examination. While not as explored as I much as I would have liked, the idea here is top notch, and definitely separates Toronto Cybercide from the bottom of the barrel cyberpunk flicks which don’t bother with interesting storylines.
The Bottom Line: UCF: Toronto Cybercide provides us an interesting, no-budget cyberpunk flick. I can only imagine the amount of decidation that goes in to a project such as this - in many instances this clearly shows. In some places, such as the “mood” moments, it clearly excels. Every now and then, you find a scene where everything comes together - the sound, visuals and acting have moments of riviting clarity. Some of the cinematography decisions, the pacing, the music and some fun dialogue lines serve to create a fun watching experience. Moreso, the 70s cop cyberpunk idea works. However, there are many areas where significant opportunities for improvement can be realized. If a sequel is enacted, a better explanation of the world is necessary, along with a better way of hiding current technologies. More important though would be a dramatically improved sense of consistency in the sound and visuals crafting. This more than anything else gives would move Key Pixel Productions from amateur status to that of a professional, low budget production house. Regardless, UCF: Toronto Cybercide is still a fun watch, one that I recommend you pick up. Please support this amateur cyberpunk flick and pick up a copy so that we end up with a sequel at some point.
Major Motoko Kusanagi: Atsuko Tanaka (Japanese), Mary McGlynn (English)
Batou: Akio Otsuka (Japanese), Richard Epcar (English)
Chief Daisuke Aramaki: Osamu Saka (Japanese), William Knight (English)
Ishikawa: Yutaka Nakano (Japanese), Michael McCarty (English)
Rating:9 out of 10
Overview: Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex (GITS SAC) uses the same characters as Masume Shirow and Mamoru Oshii, but takes place prior to the first GITS movie. Like the GITS movies, GITS SAC revolves around Section 9, an elite anti-terror police force that works behind the scenes to keep the peace. The overall tenor of this series is far more action oriented than Oshii’s movies. While there are a few philosophy moments (including a terrific one with Batou and the Tachikomas), the vast majority of the season is action oriented. In short, we get high-end, slick cyberpunk butt-kicking in GITS SAC – one that’s well worth watching, even if you do miss the philosophy.
The Laughing Man Story: In a world where cyberization has become the norm for a large segment of the population, a number of negative side effects have become possible. In addition to cyberbrain hacking, a disease called Cyberbrain Sclerosis has emerged which seems to randomly affect many who’ve undergone significant cyberization. The Mega-corporation, Serano Genomics has produced a cure for Cyberbrain Sclerosis – Serano Micromachines, a nanotech implant device that, when ingested regularly supposedly halts and eventually works to cure the disease. Unfortunately, the Micromachines only seem to help a small segment of those contracting the disease. A hacker named the Laughing Man seems bent on exposing a cover-up – one which posits that the lost Murai Vaccine has an almost permanent curative for those with Cyberbrain Sclerosis. Unfortunately for Serano Genomics, a real cure for Cyberbrain Sclerosis would decimate their profitability.
The Laughing Man is a hacker extraordinaire who is able to hack into cyberbrains at will, and worse for public confidence, is able to take over TV shows at will. Section 9 has been brought in to find and stop the terrorist known as the Laughing Man. Throughout the season, while there are side plots, it’s the Laughing Man story which drives Section 9. As it continues, the intrigue builds and the plot thickens. Eventually, corporate betrayal, political scandals and personal vendettas play a role in setting the context and exposing the larger truth.
The Side Stories: While the Laughing Man is the focus of the season, there are many side quests in GITS SAC. Some of the episodes closely resemble stories from Masume Shirow’s original GITS Graphic Novel. Among these, Batou has an interesting commando encounter with his past, and Aramaki is taken prisoner by thieves in a bank, only to get involved in a more intriguing plot. For him to survive, Motoko must be able to interpret his actions from afar to correctly figure out his strategy. Generally, the stand-alone episodes are good enough to keep you entertained – some are excellent.
7Th Volume is the Best: While GITS SAC is pretty good throughout the series, the 7th volume – the last one – is by far the best. Without the 7th volume, I would probably rate GITS SAC 8 stars, but the 7th volume really deserves a 10 star rating. In the 7th volume, Section 9 is disbanded, while political intrigue hounds their very lives. The team escapes a crack commando unit and then all go their separate ways. Motoko and Batou become the focus of the volume, and in doing so, display more humanity and feeling then they do the rest of the series. On top of this, many of the best FX are found in volume 7.
Differences with Oshii and Similarities with Shirow: Whereas Mamoru Oshii’s movies centered on the impacts of a cyberpunked society to the individual (Motoko in GITS, and Batou in GITS: Innocence), GITS SAC tends to broaden the filter to look at overall patterns in society. This leads to wonderful throw-away gems like the virtual meeting room (basically a holodeck) where everyone jacks into the meeting and then disappears when complete. We also get plots centering on problems with children in this changed new society, alienation of the masses, and loss of identity and humanity as technology takes center stage in human interaction. GITS SAC is also far more like Masume Shirow’s original graphic novel. While it doesn’t have the overt sexuality of Shirow’s work, Motoko is drawn as Shirow would; Shirow’s humor is evident in a number of the episodes; and the action takes center stage for the most part.
The Tachikomas: Early on, Major Motoko Kusanagi determined that the Tachikomas weren’t destined to be front-line fighting droids. For this reason, in order to become useful, the Tachikomas sped up their learning AI processing. As the season progresses, the Tachikomas begin to exhibit full signs of sentience, including Freewill and more devious functioning – so much so that Motoko becomes worried about their potential. Many interesting discussions take place over the development of the Tachikomas. One of the more intriguing ones that wasn’t really answered was whether being a digital life form instead of an analog one, would the Tachikomas ever develop a Ghost?
External Memory Devices and Cyberbrains – Augmented Thinking: One of the really interesting things about the GITS world is the integration of augmented brains. Conversations and complex thinking become dramatically enhanced. While the philosophical conversations are significantly reduced in GITS SAC when compared to the GITS movies, we still get a myriad of instances where cyberbrains allow people to call up a set of details about any subject that no other human could ever do. Cyberbrains in GITS SAC show a society where humanity truly has become post-human in a very real way, even though the actual look of most humans hasn’t changed much.
The Dubbing: GITS SAC is one of the few animes where the English cast is just about as good as the Japanese cast. Both William Knight (Aramaki) and Richard Epcar have been in their roles from the initial Ghost in the Shell movie in 1995, and all of the cast members have stayed consisted for both GITS Innocence and GITS SAC. Atsuko Tanaka (Motoko), Akio Ôtsuka (Batou), and Kôichi Yamadera (Togusa) have also been in their roles since 1995. It’s hard to pass up on Atsuko Tanaka though – I love her as Motoko. In any event, while the moods between the English and Japanese cast are different, they are both excellent.
The Sound: GITS SAC consistently has decent quality sound supporting the visuals. The use of the side speakers for voices is especially emphasized. The sound FX (explosions, gun shots, car chases) are always top notch. But truly, the most impressive thing in terms of sound is the sound track. The opening and closing songs (Inner Universe and Lithium Flower) by Yoko Kanno are flat out terrific. Throughout, we are treated to a variety of songs and background music, which almost always add to the action and visuals on screen.
The Visuals: GITS SAC has a variety of aids that add to the overall quality of the look. While some shots look pretty basic, others involve a variety of cool FX, including digital color grading, a myriad of environmental effects, and cell-shaded computer models. GITS SAC gives us a variety of color palettes including dominant greens, reds and blacks, and occasional blues and yellows. Overall, GITS SAC is a very professional, high quality production.
The Bottom Line: GITS SAC is a high quality cyberpunk production. While I personally like the tone and tenor of Oshii’s movies far more than I do GITS SAC, this is a personal preference. GITS SAC provides continued quality action wrapped up in impressive visuals and sound. While the first 6 volumes might only merit an 8 star rating, the conclusion is just terrific. This, along with the overall high level crafting GITS SAC provides throughout (visuals, sound, dubbing, songs) certainly raises the bar. And do yourself a favor – watch GITS SAC on a system with high quality surround sound – you’ll notice the difference.
Overview: Lathe of Heaven is one of the classic SciFi books by Ursula K. Leguin. The 1980 adaptation (unlike the 2002 version) stays pretty faithful to the book, and is a very well done low-budget made-for-TV movie. Unfortunately, the original master was lost, so the DVD transfer was taken from a VCR recording of the 1980 TV broadcast. The quality isn’t great, but the story more than makes up for it. Lathe of Heaven is as symbolic as much as it is a narrative. Overall, the film provides an immersive experience with a truly interesting ending.
The Story: Thirty years into the future, the world has been decimated by a nuclear holocaust. George Orr (Bruce Davidson), having just been exposed to massive radiation lays dying. Somehow his body is changed, and he has the power to “dream” the world back into existence, just as it was, but without the nuclear holocaust. He forgets that this has occurred and tries to live his life normally, but is continually plagued by dreams that can effect changes in reality. In this dystopic, controlling future, he is forced to undergo psychiatric therapy, and is assigned to Dr. Haber, an expert in dream problems. George is looking for Dr. Haber to “cure” him, but Haber has other ideas.
Dr. Haber quickly realizes that George is not crazy, but in fact possesses the most powerful gift ever given to man. Haber sees this as an opportunity to reshape the humanity and the world itself to become the ideal place that Man has always intended. Haber, using his dream-enhancement technology, asks George to have an effective dream about removing pollution. George does, but ends up removing all clouds, leaving the earth ever increasingly hot and dry. Haber forces George to dream of a way to cure overpopulation – this results in a plague that kills of 75% of the world’s population. Haber forces George to dream of peace on earth which results in an alien invasion that unites humanity but which can lead to the destruction of the earth itself.
Even though Haber feigns ignorance of what’s really occurring, George quickly figures out that Haber is using him. Unfortunately, George doesn’t have the force of will to truly confront Haber. Instead, he enlists the services of a lawyer named Heather (Margaret Avery) to help get his psychiatrist changed to someone other than Haber. Unfortunately, when Heather goes to visit a session, it is already too late, as George’s effective dream has just killed off 75% of the world’s population.
This pattern of George leaving, and returning continues, finally resulting in Haber forcing George to dream of removing racism (which results in everyone becoming gray) – Haber’s real purpose is to capture and duplicate George’s powers through his dream machines. Haber decides that the maladies are caused by inadequacies in George, and that he, an enlightened scientist will be able to have pure dreams that will result in the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately, when Haber dreams an effective dream, his results in a dream that will “unmake” reality. Only George can come and try to challenge Haber to a test of wills to bring a semblance of reality back.
Taosim versus Positivism: Lathe of Heaven sets up a dual between a Taoist philosophy of participation versus a positivistic one. George Orr, representing the Taoist philosophy, is perfectly willing to let the world take its own course. Even though he has the power to change the course of humanity, he prefers to go with the flow, and understands that overt and specific changes to a very complex and interdependent world will result in disaster. Dr. Haber represents the positivist view, and sees technological advancement as the primary means of improving the human condition – moreso, he believes his duty as a scientist is to utilize George’s gift to transform the world for the better. After experiencing a series of continually worse impacts to the world when forcing George to use his power, Haber finally decides the problem is with George’s unconsciousness. It never occurs to him that the real danger is in converting George’s power to a technology that can transform reality.
Le Guin’s message is clear: incredible power, especially augmented by technology, cannot be used in a simplistic way to transform a reality which is complex and intertwined. Instead, those interested in change must “go with the flow” of reality and change the human condition within the context of there normal interaction. The use of dominating power over nature will result and a dystopic future. This is in fact what Lathe of Heaven portrays.
Is Lathe of Heaven Cyberpunk? I do agree that Lathe of Heaven at best is a cyberpunk fantasy. I include it here primarily due to the use of technology, invented for the purpose of human betterment, that ends up instead almost destroying humanity. Haber’s dream enhancement technology results in increasing George’s capabilities, and ultimately leads a true cyberpunked future. Human diversity is quashed when everyone left alive (after the plague kills over 75% of the population) turns gray. Individuality is suppressed in an attempt to eliminate conflict. In the end, the message is a similar cyberpunk theme – the use of technology to remake the perfect society results in a dehumanized, sanitized dystopia.
The Bottom Line: Although low budget, the Lathe of Heaven is effective in transforming a very philosophical book to a motivating film. The dual of Taoism versus positivism is mirrored in the colors, where the Taoist earth tones dual the technological grays and whites. The three leads deliver quality performances, and the story itself is captivating. While some of the FX are suspect, and the quality of the DVD is poor (the original master was lost), Lathe of Heaven is well worth a watch.