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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Replicas (January 2019)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

William Foster is attempting to transfer human consciousness from recently deceased humans to robotic bodies—without success. After his own family dies in a car accident, necessity becomes not only the mother of invention, but the midwife of misadventure, as Foster makes use of clones to solve the transfer problem, in the process creating a host of new complications for himself and his newly resuscitated wife and children.

It’s All Neurochemistry

While watching Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s oddball, occasionally diverting, intermittently suspenseful science-fiction B-thriller, I kept trying to guess what would happen next—and consistently failed.

I suppose that could be taken as an endorsement of sorts. Replicas begins as a somewhat dour, jargon-laden and over-explicated near-future high-concept picture. The directing is solid, the cinematography and set design serviceable; probably one of the better production elements is the score by Jose Ojeda and Mark Kilian. The concept—salvaging consciousnesses and thereby the personalities of the just dead—is presented slickly and rapidly, in a similar way to how the “science” of invisibility was introduced in Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2000). Before we have time to ponder the truly astonishing consequences this procedure might entail, such as effective immortality through serial transfers, the plot takes over, grabbing us by the shoulders and shoving us from scene to scene to scene. More concepts are introduced, and more things happen, and then even more new notions are injected into the mix and even more events unfold. Call it conceptual proliferation, minus all safeguards. The narrative grip is so strong it’s hard to turn your head back and figuratively glance at something that’s happened two minutes earlier, to see if it makes sense or hangs together with everything that’s come before. Is that a virtue? If you enjoy page-turners that pleasantly pass the time, but equally easily pass out of your mind when consumed, then it might be. A variety of satisfaction—perhaps a facsimile thereof—can be found in Replica’s overstuffed but springy innards.

Unlike Hollow Man, at least, the film doesn’t ever completely derail or descend into assembly-line gothic horror with a modern veneer. I’m thankful that it is not yet another contorted morality tale about That Which We Should Not Know. It’s more like a study in That Which We May or May Not Know but Easily Get Distracted From Caring Too Much About. Keanu Reeves anchors everything by playing the part straight but also winking just a little bit at the absurdity of the proceedings when the script demands it. He relaxes into the role about twenty or thirty minutes in, and lets the movie breathe when it most needs it. Much of the humor, primarily derived from Foster’s banter with his assistant and confidante Ed Whittle (warmly played by Thomas Middleditch) doesn’t land, but every so often a quip pops. When asked about the status of the clones growing in Foster’s basement, the deadpan response is: “They’re a foot taller.” Later Ed says, “Pump the breaks on the crazy train,” letting us know that the film itself is aware of its increasing demands on our suspension of disbelief but asking us to go along for the ride anyway.

Speaking of movie precedents, there are many. The initial lab sequence in which Foster fails to imprint the consciousness of a dead soldier on a robot rapidly evokes a combination of Robocop (1987), I, Robot (2004), Transcendence (2014) and, particularly in Keanu Reeves’ hand gestures when interfacing with the holographic tech, Minority Report (2002). Small doses of this stuff go a long way, but unfortunately Replicas believes only in giant helpings—of exposition, of repetition, of narrative twists and reversals, of elements we’ve seen before in more focused movies. The operatic hands-in-the-air gesturing shtick, specifically, gets replayed at least four times; during one of these sequences I imagined the director in that role, as an extemporaneous conductor, making up gestures to his narrative orchestra as he went. Besides the aforementioned movies, there are thematic overlaps with other recent flicks like Self/less (2015) and Surrogates (2009). During the second act I briefly considered if we were headed into cloning comedy territory a la Multiplicity (1996) or dark horror comedy as in The ’Burbs (1989). Alas, once the family is back we’re propelled forward in a mad dash and left only with a lot of unanswered questions.

Oh, and am I the only one who thinks that those hand-held consciousness storage devices and the imprinting helmets wouldn’t have been out of place in Johnny Mnemonic (1995)?

What If Something Horrible Happens? – Spoilers Ahead

Besides telling a story that takes us from A to B, it’s hard to really get a gauge on what Replicas is supposed to be or do. Its title, unimaginative but bluntly effective as it is (I suppose calling the film Replicants might have resulted in a lawsuit), suggests that we’re not in for nuance, and the film lives up to that expectation. How invested are we supposed to be in Foster’s family life, when we barely know what makes his relationships tick? Alice Eve is fine as William’s wife Mona, but she’s under-served by the script, as are the children characters. Zoe, a supposed nexus for emotional viewer identification, is simply a collage of cute-isms, the glue traces still visible in the screenplay. Speaking of Zoe, granting that Foster could successfully edit out her memories and all associated recollections in every other family member, which is a huge stretch, how does he, at least initially, plan to explain her absence to the world at large?

For that matter, how empathetic should we feel towards Foster? First he complains to his boss about the “sacrifices” he’s had to make in order to pursue his scientific project, including the relocation of his family to Arecibo, and minutes later we see his mansion-like abode and luxury lifestyle, and his apparently content, thriving spouse and offspring. Then, despite obviously unsafe conditions, he drives wrecklessly, and immediately after a near-accident, fails to pay attention to the road a second time, now killing everyone except himself. The more closely you examine Foster’s moral fiber, the more it looks like pitch-black narcissistic basalt than a hearty helping of fruits and vegetables.

Quirks abound. It makes sense that Ed would be preoccupied with the cloning tank levels— “Watch the levels. The levels are everything”—but it’s less reasonable for the film to dwell on them as long as it does and then do nothing with the setup. In a remarkable lack of tact, Ed asks William if he’s all right barely a few scenes after helping him move the corpses of his wife and kids. Foster enunciates the same lines at different key moments. “Animal consciousness can be transferred. Why not human? What am I missing?” for instance, is later echoed by showing forty consecutive failed simulations and Foster again morosely intoning, “What am I missing?” Then, after the transfer is complete, he confidently states that they’re all going to be okay without any data at all!

The writing gets worse as the pace picks up. “My name isn’t even Jones!”, as delivered by John Ortiz, who plays Foster’s sinister boss, provides one of the third act’s most unintentionally hilarious moments. I half expected the director himself to jump out from behind a bush and add, “This isn’t even a science fiction film called Replicas!” In further abuse of the Jones-not-Jones character, he says, “Bill, are you negotiating?” with sardonic glee and later repeats “Bill, are you negotiating?” with, well, sardonic glee. As we tumble towards the movie’s final scene, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jones-not-Jones’ shadowy superiors didn’t become suspicious at his seventeen-day silence? Then again, they might have welcomed the break.

Never mind. I’m overthinking things. Replica’s strategy is to stop-plug every plot hole with a whole new slew of developments, knowing that eventually the film’s running time will come to an end and we’ll dust off the popcorn and get on with our lives. So be it. Perhaps, if a sequel ever gets made, Foster will discover that he himself was a replica all along, the lone remnant of a prior trial, and the entire plot of this movie will be retconned into a carefully controlled island experiment. “We wanted to see how far we could push a man before his mind imploded,” a figure cloaked in darkness will tell and even less visible superior. “We can’t explain it, sir. No matter what we throw at him, Foster just keeps on improvising. He wasn’t even fazed when he found out he was a copy.”

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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