Saturday, May 18, 2024

Superficial Enjoyment of ‘Zone 414’

Tycoon Marlon Viedt (Travis Fimmel) sends former detective turned freelance investigator David Carmichael (Guy Pearce) into Zone 414 – Veidt’s safe zone for interacting with his lifelike robots in all manner of discreet vice. There, David must find Veidt’s missing daughter Melissa, and the self-aware, emotive robot Jane (Matilda Lutz) assists him despite fears against her own life and the suspicion that a client is being paid to kill her.

I had heard the worst about2021’s Zone 414, sometimes subtitled The City of Robots, but I don’t think it’s as terrible as other reviews suggest. Certainly, the human depravity and sociopathy is not completely addressed. Zone 414 plays at the sinister ghetto without actually showing much. Omnipresent surveillance and multiple camera angles try to establish this world in drawn out to and from transitions but the point of view is undefined thanks to the unnecessary mystery framework that isn’t much of a whodunit. Perhaps the through the lens viewpoint is intentional to mirror our current social media and distorted perceptions, but the old school design and superficial commentary don’t mesh. Naked robots for sale are rudely examined and emotional androids need therapy maintenance sessions, yet it’s tough to know what Zone 414 is about when such intriguing scenes are cut short. 

Hollow middle man facilitators are on their own power trips, addressing the cliches of the Zone and thinking the entire enterprise would collapse without them in scenes that will have too much double talk for viewers expecting more action. Some chase sequences and violent moments, on the other hand, feel unnecessary if this is going to be a character driven piece, yet the expected unlikely opposites attract robot romance also never happens. Obviously it would have been too Fifth Element-esque if David was a cab driver escorting a hefty fare into the Zone. However, having our protagonists anonymously driven about in aesthetic overhead shots serves no purpose, especially when walking throughout the heady Zone for their investigation would have better immersed them and us into the seedy.

One point of view character would have also helped Zone 414 but instead omnipresent visuals toy with debriefing interviews, android outcomes, out of order attacks, and crime revelations – muddling any commentary and leaving the audience questioning what actually happens. David Biblical references could have been explored further, and debates on reason and morality versus god complexes and power deserved more. Fortunately, there are interesting nuggets from debut director Andrew Baird (One Way) and writer Bryan Edward Hill (Titans) on control, vices, and the sexual nature of our robots in this sanctioned red district. Ubiquitous Echo response devices see and hear all while weak men pay a million dollars to cry or kill in hotel rooms designed with the bedroom in the front and living room in the back because the sex is why they’re there. Disturbing choice moments with the culprit are memorably demented, and standard model female robots are recirculated to creeps who pay not to hurt them…much. The people caught in the middle have to take the money or excise their depravity, used and abused just like these androids. The Zone will continue to claim there is no violence and its clients and robots are safe – for the right price. Who and what is real if we’re all replaceable with an android? Disturbing revelations of what happens to disposed robots and their assembled parts comes down to the person in control. Our robots can only stand in fear as their handler locks them in place and turns on the blowtorch in a stirring finale.

It’s somewhat silly, yet provocative the way Matilda Lutz’s (Revenge) hair color changes as the emotive prototype Jane. Her look bending to please each man mirrors what women will do to be attractive, and Zone 414’s entire focus could have been her sadness. Jane pleases depraved clients so well that they have their catharsis and don’t want her again, leaving her humiliated and suicidal despite the automatic self-repairs after each attempt. Jane won’t do something if she’s not commanded, but she will give in to forced requests as her program dictates, again reflecting a woman’s often heard “little girl do what you’re told.” 

She resists the idea that she has any masters, but Jane also takes the blame for a crime she didn’t do because they tell her she must. Rather than dig deep into Jane’s internal conflict, however, Zone 414 confuses its audience with our lookalike poor little rich girl who wants to be an android missing daughter. We actually never really see her – a non-entity more MacGuffin than character who detracts from the more important fearful and fatalistic Jane. Admittedly, the age make-up on Travis Fimmel (Vikings) is terrible. However, it’s a fun kind of bad fitting for the plastic, youthful obsessions, and depraved dysmorphia. Our megalomaniac genius has orchestrated an entirely fake world – right down to the robot mother feeding him his steak. Sadly, Veidt only has a few scenes, leaving this potentially disturbing characterization as just another cliché. Zone pimp Olwen Fouéré (Mandy) suggests much more alongside the menacing if obvious Jonathan Aris (Sherlock), assorted psychopaths, and colorful henchfolk. Brief moments from disturbed wealthy clients Colin Salmon (The World is not Enough), Jóhannes Hauker Jóhannesson (Atomic Blonde), and robot therapist Fionnula Flannagan (The Others) become stereotypical and superfluous as Zone 414’s entire supporting cast goes underutilized.

Fortunately, Guy Pearce’s grumpy cop has an iffy past with kicked off the force shady and no qualms about coldly shooting a pleading android and disassembling its brain core. David thinks he’s above what happens in the Zone – its degeneracy isn’t his style but he’ll look the other way for the huge paycheck. Scheduling issues forced Pearce and Fimmel to switch their original roles, and although I can see Pearce hamming it up as our crazed corporate egotist, it’s fitting that his David is older, jaded, leaning against the wall, and rolling his eyes. He claims to others he doesn’t drink yet is seen drinking alone, and Zone 414’s best moments are the existential one-on-ones between David and Jane debating who is the prisoner or the prison when everybody has secrets as well as an accessible file. Of course, David’s personal motivation comes late in the hour as he solves the case because the movie says so, not because he did any real investigating or had a profound experience. Pearce has had an odd film streak since the pandemic with Without Remorse, The Seventh Day, Bloodshot, Memory, and Disturbing the Peace being undercooked at best and downright bad at worst. His performances are fine despite this rut – especially on television be it briefly in Mare of Easttown or stellar in Jack Irish. Indeed, I applaud Pearce for lending his clout to smaller roles, indie chances, and working with first time directors and newer screenwriters, particularly considering Zone 414’s mere $5 million budget.

Though Zone 414 tries for a certain stylistic neo-noir, the old yellow cabs, colorful neon cityscapes, and Asian influences all feel like pieces of other films, perhaps Johnny Mnemonic more so than Blade Runner. Retro futuristic vinyl, flash cameras, and vintage phones pepper the high tech robotics with a gritty nineties mood, but the tough to see dark scenes and contemporary digital gradient jar with the attempted old school design. Occasional surveillance camera footage and jumpy VHS intercuts of our victim with smeared lipstick or a bag over her head become unnecessary cool visuals for the audience rather than any real Big Brother statements, and one final daylight shot is too on the nose. Thankfully, the audio accents are a more subtle touch – tape rewinding sounds and old fashioned dial tones better invoke the downtrodden past meeting a bleak future that happens to have androids. If this was a nineties television movie, Zone 414 would be praised for intriguing themes under such confined restraints. Today however, Zone 414 is caught between being something that could have been provocative and your run of the mill direct to streaming release. Its superficial android versus human expectations are the result of the industry’s ever expanding whirlpool – too little seen Zone 414 makes no money and our director apparently has the same fly by night production problems on his next feature. Baird and Pearce have since re-teamed for the newly available Sunrise, which other reviews have criticized for the same quick turnaround deflating too many ideas. I wonder what would happen if someone gave Baird more time and money to see what kind of picture he could make?

Zone 414′s rushed, confusing, science fiction familiarity tries to do too much and will disappoint viewers expecting deeper sociological examination. This should be a tighter piece focusing on character introspection inside a bigger statement. An obscure 1995 robot movie I have on VHS called Automatic did this well. By cutting unnecessary tangents and honing its main themes in another draft, Zone 414 could have been a step above its low budget, stretched thin sci-fi retreads. Although the story will feel superficial and incomplete unless you watch this more than once, there’s enough intrigue and cast and crew interest for me to see Zone 414 again.

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