Director Andrew Baird deserves credit for nakedly aping one of sci-fi's most famous films, but he can't recreate its style or storytelling.
- * Even with lackluster dialogue, Matilda Lutz gives "malfunctioning" android Jane some interesting dimensions the movie needed to explore better.
- * Writer Bryan Edward Hill front-loads the film with too many ideas and references that its director, and its budget, cannot deliver.
- * Guy Pearce's Brooklyn ex-cop accent is bad enough for us to declare a moratorium on trying them in movies for another few years.
Meandering is a luxury that very few filmmakers can afford, especially if your chosen genre is science fiction. If your imagination is truly boundless, or budgets are bottomless, then you can explore a world on screen for as long as you want. But fewer storytellers than ever have either of these resources to draw upon, so when a film like Zone 414 comes along, it feels not only like it’s wasting the time of the cast and crew, but of the audience as well.
Making his feature debut, director Andrew Baird works from a search-and-replace Blade Runner copycat script by Bryan Edward Hill (Ash vs Evil Dead) to explore a futuristic world of privileged inventors, grizzled detectives and androids with hearts of gold that never builds the tension or intrigue he thinks is quietly accumulating with an endless series of unhurried, neon-drenched images. Meanwhile, Guy Pearce (Mare of Easttown) struggles with a blue-collar Brooklyn accent while costar Matilda Lutz (Revenge) attempts to wrangle endless reams of expository dialogue in order to make this two-hander feel like something more than a double wank.
Pearce plays David Carmichael, a disgraced police detective turned private investigator hired by eccentric industrialist Marlon Veidt (Travis Fimmel, Die in a Gunfight) to locate his missing daughter Melissa (Holly Demaine). Veidt knows that Melissa is located somewhere in Zone 414, an unregulated area where his artificial intelligence droids can operate freely as companions to rich, lonely humans, but cannot go to the authorities because he fears that her disappearance — or any violence — will cause a government crackdown. Told to locate Jane (Lutz), a uniquely empathetic android who befriended Melissa, David enters the zone and attempts to uncover the path that leads to where she is hiding, or possibly captured.
Prior to meeting David, Jane is facing her own problems: her emotional fluctuations swing wildly out of control, and she has a stalker who she worries may actually be paying for the privilege of tormenting her. But as the two of them try to locate Melissa, both David and Jane begin to realize that they have more in common than they would have expected. Before long, they discover truths about his job, and her world, that has ramifications for the experiences that made each of them who they are, forcing them to band together to solve the mystery of Melissa’s whereabouts as the depraved and calculating inhabitants of Zone 414 seek to protect the secrets that they hide behind its walls.
Zone 414 is just under 100 minutes, which isn’t long at all by the standards of any traditional theatrical running time. But here, it feels interminable: the combination of Hill’s script and Baird’s direction drags out every scene to nearly twice the length that it needs, and then adds superfluous ones for the presumed purpose of world-building that wouldn’t have been necessary with a single title card over the opening credits. To be fair, that would probably feel extremely hacky as well as an alternative, but every scene is about mood and lighting and the interior lives of characters we don’t care enough to investigate quite so closely instead of the missing persons case that is supposed to propel the plot forward. And as you may likely have guessed, this is not a film with the limitless resources to construct a dystopian near future that is so detailed and interesting that the audience will want to luxuriate in its minutiae.
Instead, what they’re given is a budget version of the Flesh Fair and Rouge City sequences from A.I., where red LED lights line every doorway and a good 50 percent of the camera angles are “stolen” from security cameras whose omniscient gaze never gets explained. Given the acknowledgments that Jane makes about herself, David and even Melissa, Hill’s clearly self-aware of the fact that he’s ripping off Spielberg’s film, Blade Runner and a few dozen others (no eccentric genius outside of Watchmen should ever again bear the last name “Veidt”), but admitting it is never a successful solution to the problem of not being original. Moreover, his story comes to a somewhat inevitable “it’s Chinatown, Jake” ending that doesn’t even bother to show the work involved in getting there; focusing more on character growth than plot machinery is fine, but that machinery still needs to actually function, and the way in which David figures out what happens provides a baffling eleventh-hour “a-ha!” that leaves viewers feeling more confusion than catharsis.
It’s hard to know what sort of pitch Pearce received from Baird, or what financial straits he may be currently facing, but even his unshowy proficiency as an actor cannot rescue this dime store Rick Deckard from the scrap heap of closed-off gumshoes whose heart gets unexpectedly reawakened. Conversely, Lutz has an intriguing sensuality that she utilizes to great effect as she provides emotional (and one presumes, physical) gratification that she cannot later shut off; even if she literally summarizes the dynamic between her android trying to be a real girl and his real man trying to be a closed-off robot, she manages to inject Jane with some interesting dimensions that the material does not necessarily help enough with.
While Fimmel’s “weirdo” prosthetics prove to be a distraction, he nevertheless stands out among the rest of the cast as the reclusive, Elon Musk type holing up in a mansion with his inventions to keep him company. But there is at best 80 minutes of story to tell in this 100 minute film where Baird somehow languishes too much time on the production design while managing to ignore obvious, niggling questions that could potentially make it more interesting, even just for the sake of conceptual cohesion. (For example, why does David take a cab everywhere, and who is his driver? Is it the same person? Is it an android?) Ultimately, Zone 414 is a film built around a premise, but without all of the necessary ideas to transform that premise into an actual story. And so what audiences end up with is something that meanders, when it shouldn’t; certainly there’s something to admire about being bold enough to rip off one of the best science fiction films of all time, but if you’re going to try and take everything that works in Blade Runner and make something new with it, then at least make sure that it’s not a drag.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.
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