Replicas (2019)

Often, when we have fun watching “bad movies” for sport, we’re indulging in the over-the-top camp & below-par craft of outsider art: finding amusement in the handmade, weirdly delivered oddities that could never make it to the screen in more professional, homogenized studio pictures. The latest Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie (in a tradition that includes such esteemed titles as Chain Reaction & Johnny Mnemonic) is an entirely different, more rarified kind of “bad movie” pleasure. Replicas is less of an over-the-top, straight-from-the-id slice of schlocky outsider art than it is a confounding puzzle, the kind of “bad movie” that inspired the idiom “How did this get made?” There are a few laughs to be had at Replicas’s expense, but not as many as you may hope for from a dirt-cheap sci-fi picture dumped into an early-January theatrical release (when it obviously deserved the direct-to-VOD treatment). Chuckling at its robotic line-deliveries & Lawnmower Man-level CGI can only carry you so far in a movie that’s too somberly paced to fully support the MST3k-riffing treatment. Replicas does not amount to much as a laugh-a-minute camp fest, but it does excel as a puzzling piece of screenwriting, a bizarre act of storytelling so emotionless & illogical that there’s no recognizable humanity to it at all, as if its conception itself was a work of science fiction.

Keanu Reeves stars as a scientist & a family man, toiling away in a Puerto Rican lab on a research project meant to transfer human consciousness to A.I. machines. His closest collaborator, a perpetually nervous Thomas Middleditch, is simultaneously working on a seemingly unrelated project involving human cloning. When a freak car accident kills his wife & children, Reeves makes a panicked decision to combine the two projects, creating clones of his deceased family and importing the “neurological data” from their former selves, so it’s as if they never died. To its credit, Replicas almost establishes a genuinely unnerving source of tension there – finding chilling moments of unease as the dead family’s “living” replicas occasionally half-remember the crash that killed them as if it were a dream they once had. The movie isn’t especially interested in building on that theme, however, as it instead chases a go-nowhere conspiracy thriller storyline involving the company that paid for the cloning & A.I. research. Even that narrative thread is illogically patterned, however, delivering none of the usual payoffs you’d expect from its genre. Replicas ultimately feels as if it were written by a malfunctioning algorithm that became self-aware midway into the process and decided to self-destruct rather than construct a third act. Its various narrative threads & motions towards thematic reasoning are ultimately an act of total chaos, a meaningless collection of 1’s & 0’s. It’s oddly fascinating to behold as it devolves into formless nonsense, like listening to an A.I. machine babble as it loses power & effectively dies.

Keanu Reeves does deliver some traditionally funny “bad movie” line-readings throughout, recalling his befuddled family-man schtick in Knock Knock. His attempts to imbue pathos into lines like “I didn’t defy every natural law there is just to lose you again,” & “Boot the mapping sequence, Ed!” hit the perfect note of failed sincerity & meaningless one-liner script punch-ups. His wife (Alice Eve) sinks even further into inhuman “bad movie” performance than he does – speaking in a dazed, dubbed, robotic cadence about the difference between “neuro chemistry” vs. the human soul as if she were calling in a lunch order. Still, these moments of absurdly mishandled drama are too far spaced-out to recommend Replicas as a laugh-a-minute camp fest. The movie is much more enjoyable for the value of its bizarre construction as a piece of writing. Its mystery thriller tangents, loose Frankenstein-style themes of playing god, and desperate scramble to reach a coherent conclusion all clash spectacularly as its hopes for a clear, linear storyline fall to pieces before our eyes. Most so-bad-it’s-good cinematic pleasures are enjoyable because they offer a glimpse of humanity that shines through the usual machinery of professional filmmaking – whether in a poorly made costume, a wildly miscalculated performance, an unintentional expression of a creator’s id, or what have you. Replicas is a different kind of “bad movie” delight; it’s fascinating because it seems to display no discernible humanity at all, as if it were written by a machine on the fritz. Its only value is that it can be taught as an example of what not to do in a screenwriting class, or enjoyed for its puzzling questions of how & why it was made in the first place by the lucky few who mistakenly find themselves gazing at its confounding, cheap CG splendor.

-Brandon Ledet

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Anna to the Infinite Power (1982)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

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