Film Reviews:

Dark Drive

(Phillip Roth, US, 1996)

Tomorrow: the multi-national conglomerate Zircon Corporation has created the ultimate prison with the minimum confinement space. The Exile Chair imprisons the human mind, while terminating its body. Its computer containment world, the Matrix, is an alternate universe with its own reality. The Chair develops a glitch and the vortex link to the Matrix transforms into a violent electrical entity, creating a 'worm hole' back into the real world and wiping out the population of an entire town. Simultaneously, a mysterious terrorist, known as the Shadow Man, appears inside the Matrix, carrying with him a program to destroy the real world. Special agent Steve Falcon must pass through the void into the Matrix to track down the Shadow Man before he can unleash his devastating power. But even if he is successful can he ever get back to the real world?

If you thought Twelve Monkeys was confusing then watch out: you ain't seen nothing yet. Dark Drive brings together several popular hard SF themes and ideas and weaves them into a rich tapestry of false realities, states of mind and double meaning. It takes a lot of effort to keep up with the plot but if you do you'll be met with bigger questions than most SF films even dare think about. The thrust of the main notion found in the script is the idea of 'uploading' the mind into the memory of a computer. If the mind can exist beyond the confines of the human body, can the world in which it exists be considered 'reality'? Moreover, the script goes on to ask that if that mind has an objectivity that tells it the world in which it exists is an artificial one, is that world just 'another reality' and if so how would one cope with living in such an existence? It's pretty heavy stuff but the film concentrates on the paradoxes and action the scenario throws up to get us through this philosophically boggy ground, and in doing so turns in an intelligent SF action film that delivers as many explosions as it does complex questions.

If this is all sounding just a little daunting, rest assured that the director has his eye as much on Spielberg as he does Nietzsche. Pretend 'Steve Falcon' as the name for the hero of the piece is passable and swallow the sometimes trite dialogue and you'll get the usual array of (admittedly) good looking computer graphic effects combined with shooting, exploding and jumping that typifies the mainstream of the genre. Equally, as if to say the filmmakers won't go too overboard with all the philosophical material, there is a scene when someone hacks into the Zircon computer system and accesses a list of top secret projects the company is currently working on. The titles whizz up the screen and stop at the Exile Chair project. If one bothers to scroll back up that list, frame by frame, you would be rewarded with some self-indulgent yet highly amusing joke projects including: "Socks that Stay up", "World Domination" and "The Perfect Vibrator" among others! But this trivialises what is a welcome entry into that rare and sparsely-populated SF sub-genre: the film that makes you really think about what you're watching - or think you're watching.

If comparisons need be drawn then the aforementioned Twelve Monkeys can be joined by Strange Days for a number of parallels (and whose SQUID dealers mirror the traders in Dark Drive who are after the Shadow Man's program disk). The accomplished technical elements of the production - lighting, photography, set design - present a barren, wasted city alternate reality not a million miles away from Escape From New York. But Dark Drive doesn't actually steal from any of these. It is its own film by virtue of a magnificent script and bold storytelling. Any of its various shortcomings pale alongside its impressive literate arsenal. You can forget Johnny Mnemonic, Dark Drive is the ultimate upload movie.

Rob Dyer