Infinity Pool (2023)

A lot of people are going to write off Brandon Cronenberg’s latest sci-fi horror Infinity Pool as a disappointing follow-up to Possessor, when it’s really just an ill-timed one.  Cronenberg wrote Infinity Pool during the years-long lull between his debut feature Antiviral and his COVID-era breakout Possessor, and it’s only the industrial happenstance of production scheduling that determined which of his second & third projects reached the screen first.  You can feel the frustration of his stop-and-start project developments seeping through the text.  Alexander Skarsgård stars as a hack novelist whose privileged familial connections have kept him afloat in the six years since his debut work was critically skewered then forgotten, which positions him as a kind of self-satirical avatar for Cronenberg as a nepo-baby auteur on a long, winding road to acclaim.  It doesn’t make much sense for the director to quickly follow up his greatest success to date with a Charlie Kaufmann-style writer’s block thriller—wherein a frustrated creative gets themselves into exponential cosmic trouble simply because they cannot produce—but Cronenberg doesn’t have control over which of his scripts are greenlit when, so that out-of-sync feeling is totally forgivable in context.  That’s not what makes the film ill-timed; it’s how similar his Skarsgård avatar’s cosmic trouble is to other recent films & television programs that partially dulls Infinity Pool‘s sharpest edges.

While vacationing with his benefactor wife (Cleopatra Coleman) at an Eastern European luxury resort in a futile search for creative inspo, James Foster (Skarsgård) is recruited into an informal crime ring of ultra-wealthy hedonists, led by a hothead babe with a babydoll London accent (Mia Goth).  These international elites have discovered a nifty loophole that allows them to get away with murdering & pillaging the impoverished locals outside the resort, suffering no consequences for their crimes outside frequent trips to the ATM for stacks of bribe money.  As a diplomatic, bureaucratic measure, the local government has developed technology to clone the wealthy tourists and have their doubles suffer the consequences instead, only requiring that the wanton criminals watch justice be served in increasingly ultraviolent geek shows.  The transgression of watching their own deaths proves addictive, and their crimes only become more pointless & brazen so they can return to the executioners’ theatre.  James’s major mistake is assuming that he is accepted among the group as an equal, but since he married into wealth instead of “earning” it himself, his new clique treats him as just another plaything – pushing him to indulge in grotesque, humiliating acts for their amusement.  On some psychosexual sublevel, he appears to enjoy this social torture, or he’s at least reluctant to put a stop to it.

I doubt Cronenberg would have timed the distribution of Infinity Pool to January 2023 if he knew how many thematic parallels it would find on the current pop culture landscape.  After seeing Glass Onion, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and season two of White Lotus all become pop culture talking points in such a short stretch, it’s probably time to pump the brakes on skewering the ultra-wealthy for using other people’s lives as a consequence-free playground for a while.  That said, I’ve enjoyed most of those tee-ball satires for their individual doses of class-politics catharsis and, although a late addition to the collection, Infinity Pool is the one that most directly panders to my fucked-up tastes.  You cannot pack the frame with this many strobe lights, gore gags, hallucinatory orgies, and creepy masks without me walking away smiling.  Letting Mia Goth loose to terrorize Skarsgård as a crazed domme armed with fried chicken & a handgun instead of leather whips & cuffs is also a brilliant move, as she greedily devours scenery with vicious, delirious abandon.  Among all its “Eat the Rich” classmates of 2022, Infinity Pool most reminded me of Triangle of Sadness, mostly for how far it pushes its onscreen depravity for darkly comedic, cathartic release – careful to put every possible substance the human body can discharge on full, loving display (except maybe for feces, which might be included in the NC-17 cut; can’t be sure).  Plenty audiences are likely to be turned off by both works for their disregard for subtlety & restraint, but that’s exactly what makes them great.

This film’s poor timing in distribution shouldn’t discount its of-the-moment merits.  Extratextual concerns aside, it’s very funny, upsetting, and reluctant to be neatly categorized or understood (despite its wealth of easy comparison points).  I suspect it will age well, even by time its “Unrated” cut hits VOD in the coming months, since distance from our recent wealth of anti-wealth satires can only do it favors.  It also seems like Cronenberg got to work out something ugly & pathetic he wanted to exorcize from his own psyche here (often through outright self-mockery), which is the exact kind of weirdo personal touch I’m always looking for in art.

-Brandon Ledet

The 6th Day (2000)

Every year for my birthday, I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as a gift to myself. Something about that Austrian galoot’s heyday as the live-action cartoon version of an American action star makes me warmly nostalgic in a way no other media can. This year, I took a risk by revisiting one of the lesser loved action flicks from the final days of Arnie’s golden era, just a few years before he switched from explosions to politics. The 6th Day held up much better than expected as a dumb-as-rocks nostalgia trip, though, with the camp value of its early-aughts futurism aging like fine wine over the past couple decades. More importantly, it was surprisingly solid Schwarzenegger Birthday programming (something I should remember for future celebrations). Not only does the film deliver two Arnies for the price of one, but it’s also set on his own character’s birthday for at least the first half of the film. My only regret is not timing my viewing where I could have blown out my birthday candles at the same time as my favorite muscled-up goofball.

In short, The 6th Day presents an alternate reality where Joel Schumacher directed Total Recall, and it’s just as delightfully stupid & gaudy as that sounds. In the near future—”sooner than you think”—a Totally American Dad (and helicopter pilot for an X-treme sports snowboarding company) has his life derailed when he is cloned against his will by an evil Bill Gates type and his scientist lackeys. Horrified to discover that he’s been replaced in his home (and marital bed) by his own clone, Schwarzenegger vows to take down the Evil Scientist Dweebs who ruined his life with the only tools he knows: punches, explosions, and one-liners. Beyond the chase scenes & mustache-twirling villainy that earns the film its vintage action movie credentials, The 6th Day is essentially just a collection of kitschy predictions of what the “future” is going to look like circa 2015. Some of these predictions are supposed to read as Super Cool to the macho set: the continued sports world dominance of the XFL, remote control helicopters you can pilot with video game joysticks, programmable slutty hologram girlfriends, etc. Most predictions are supposed to be terrifying & dystopian: the criminalization of tobacco use, creepy robot smart-dolls made for little girls and, most importantly, the Dolly the Sheep cloning experiments being extended to creating human life. And Schwarzenegger’s at the center of it all, just trying his best to be a good Husband & Dad like every red-blooded American should.

Admittedly, The 6th Day can’t compete with the very best of Schwarzenegger’s macho American caricatures, as seen in trash-action classics like Commando & The Running Man. Still, it’s charming to see him doing his thing so many years after he already spoofed himself for it in Last Action Hero. Playing off the film’s cloning theme, Arnie lands not one but two “Go screw yourself” one-liners, as well as the self-referential zinger “I might be back.” That is comedy, folks. There’s also something adorable about his character’s quest to return to a life of chomping cigars and making love with his wife, which is positioned as being in direct opposition to The Modern World. The details surrounding this macho, all-American throwback kitsch can be surprisingly grotesque, as the cloning gimmick at the center of the movie essentially makes human bodies disposable and, thus, fair game to dismantle. No amount of severed thumbs, limbs, or intestines can fully pave over the childlike naivete at the film’s core, though, and the violence ends up coming across as more live-action Looney Tunes than anything genuinely severe. The 6th Day is a little overlong and very much overwhelmingly macho, but it’s mostly a hoot. It will likely never enjoy the same Cult Classic reputation as other brainless action spectacles from Schwarzenegger’s prime, but I find it to be one of those classics’ better late-career clones. I can’t wait to blow out my birthday candles with Unkie Arnie on my next revisit.

-Brandon Ledet

Anna to the Infinite Power (1982)



I’ve mentioned before, in my review of The Legend of Boggy Creek, that I used to look forward to reading Maitland McDonagh’s “Ask FlickChick” column each week with great anticipation as a preteen. Some movies, like Boggy Creek, were perennial favorites, movies half-remembered by children of the seventies and eighties from repeated airings on late-night cable or watched secretly at mostly-forgotten sleepovers. One such film that stuck in the minds of that generation’s children was a film about a young girl who discovers that there are other girls who share her face; McDonagh was often happy to inform them that they were remembering the made-for-TV children’s thriller Anna to the Infinite Power, which premiered on HBO in 1982 and on home video in 1983.

The film’s plot follows Anna Hart (Martha Byrne), the brilliant but bratty daughter of scientist Sarah (Dina Merrill) and piano teacher Graham (Jack Ryland). Anna is a genius, but she has a history of stealing and misbehaving, prioritizes her scientific studies to the extent that her artistic accomplishments are mechanical and uninspired, is afflicted with migraines caused by flickering lights, and is openly disrespectful to her teacher (Loretta Devine, who unfortunately doesn’t get much to do here). Graham doesn’t understand why Sarah is always so defensive about Anna’s brilliance, but he chooses to let it go. The couple also have an older son, Rowan (Mark Patton, star of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: The One with the Homoerotic SubText), who is studying music as well. Rounding out the main cast is Donna Mitchell as Michaela Dupont, another piano teacher who has moved in across the street from the Harts at the time that the film opens.

One night, Anna has a dream about being on a rough flight and being comforted by a woman who seems to be her mother, but isn’t. When she awakes the next morning, she finds that there has been a plane crash in Philadelphia and a girl who looks like her is interviewed by a reporter at the scene. Rowan, who is initially sceptical, finds a photo of this other Anna in the newspaper and agrees to help his sister figure out what’s going on. The two track down the home of the second Anna, but when her mother answers the door, she claims to have no daughter; when they leave, they are attacked by a biplane piloted by someone who has seen North by Northwest one too many times. They escape this murderous pilot and are found by their mother, who tells them the truth: Anna is just one of many girls who were cloned from a scientist named Anna Zimmerman, a girl who was the daughter of a scientist and a musician and lived through the Holocaust to become a scientist in her own right, but died just as she was on the verge of finalizing her designs of the “replicator,” a food generating device that would end world hunger. An unnamed genetics company devised a plan to clone Zimmerman and raise these clones in a similar family structure with the goal of one day recreating an Anna who can complete the replicator device.

For a movie ostensibly made for children, this is a dark but engrossing and ambitious feature with a great premise that paints the world in ambiguous colors. The reveal that the flickering lights cause Anna pain because Anna Zimmerman’s sister, a composer, was well liked by a Nazi commandant who forced her to play her trademark sonata (which is also the film’s main musical leitmotif) by candlelight is particularly grim; in an interview on the 2010 DVD release of the film, Patton talks about how he is still recognized on the street for his role in this movie, and that he has heard from many people that they first learned about the Holocaust as children by watching this film. The horrifying, soul-crushing truth about the extent of the historical event is only alluded to here, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid’s movie that explicitly referenced concentration camps, outside of those narratives that are based on the lives of real survivors.

In contemporary children’s media, we rarely see stories that explicitly tell children to question authority, or which suggest children should be given agency in the decisions which affect their future life. Here, Anna is exposed to the cruel fact of life that adults make terrible decisions, that parents lie to their children and to each other (Sarah volunteered to be a mother in the Anna program, but Graham knew nothing about it), and that grown-ups can be as easily manipulated as children, or choose to do immoral things because they, like children, are trapped within the horizon of their own beliefs. Most importantly, Anna comes to realize that companies (and governments) can and will sacrifice innocents in the pursuit of a “greater good,” although the ends—be it a stronger, independent Germany, as was the case for the regime that nearly killed Anna Zimmerman, or the end of world hunger, as was the goal of the experiment that created and nearly destroyed Anna Hart—do not justify the means. By the time a youngster watching this movie learns that the organization that created Anna is completely unethical and evil (Michaela is actually the only escapee/survivor of a previous batch of Annas, who were killed along with their families when they were unable to recreate Zimmerman’s work, a fate that is planned for Anna Hart’s fellow clones and their respective families before Michaela intervenes), they’ve probably learned more about human nature than they could have imagined. Life is cheap, trust is a commodity, and blind faith in a higher order of authority can lead to destruction of the highest and most disturbing caliber.

Anna is not a perfect movie. The production values are very low, and this shows in a lot of the scenes, particularly early in the film. Still, the movie is an exercise in economical filmmaking both monetarily and within the commodity of time; not a single frame or note is wasted, and all of it builds towards an ambiguous ending that, judging by the sheer number of people who wrote to McDonagh about it, left an impression on an entire generation of kids who were lucky enough to grow up with HBO. I hate to sound like an old fart, but the 1980s and 1990s were a glorious time for children’s media; animated films did not shy away from being somber and occasionally frightening or macabre, and television was more open about the fact that adults didn’t know everything. Today, we live in a world where children’s media underwent a massive shift in the first part of the new millennium, as American culture moved from inquisitive outspokenness to enforced jingoistic patriotism and adherence to authority in the wake of 9/11, and the TV programs and movies produced for children followed suit, turning into a pablum of trite, cheery shows with little reflection of reality. Although the tides of this anti-intellectual movement have finally started to turn (most notably in the popularity of The Hunger Games, which I find laudable because of its themes that the government can’t be trusted and that media is intentionally manipulated to prevent criticism of toxic institutions), parents would be well served by looking back to the late twentieth century for realistic heroes and important messages about society and its ills. Anna to the Infinite Power is definitely something I intend to show to my (future, hypothetical) children, and I would recommend you do the same.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond