“Intelligent in the sense that it fleshes out the implications of its central conceit, but is underdeveloped in the sense that many things forever remain implications.”
There may never be a movie made about a mind-altering technology that improves the human experience. And if there is, it doesn’t start with Ben C. Lucas’s OtherLife, which brings us into the immediate, pre-launch phase of OtherLife, an Australian tech startup which has attracted considerable attention with its flagship product. Originating from researcher and co-founder Ren (Jessica De Gouw), it’s the most advanced form of virtual reality invented yet – in fact, it moves above the description. Using highly potent chemicals, taken in through an eyedrop, a subject can experience a “memory”, concentrating imagined time into actual time (i.e. a day in the simulation equals seconds in real life).
Ren’s reasons for advancing this project are personal. Her brother Jared (Liam Graham) has been in a coma since an accident several years earlier, and she hopes that his remaining brain functions will be conducive to a specific OtherLife experience. But as the product is about to go live, and transform the world, a pre-existing flaw – the possibility for severe adverse effects on the nervous system – kills Danny (Thomas Coquerel), one of the program’s lead developers. As part of a settlement, Ren agrees to undergo a yet-untested confinement period: one year in virtual holding cell, or one minute of real time. The offer, proposed by government officials, seems suspicious from the get-go, but she’s all but forced into it, and it’s then when things manage to go even further south.
From there, the film spins from a minimalist sci-fi into a more elaborate form, encompassing elements from conspiracy thrillers and conventional character drama. OtherLife uses its escalating stakes to pile on more and more ideas, but there comes a point when Lucas can’t sustain the strong concepts from where he started. It’s a slow process, taking a tightly wound first act, and unwinding it, until the film has become a loose ball of thread that’s scattered all over the floor. There is a sense of consistency – visible in De Gouw’s solid lead performance – but the movie finds itself more invested in possibilities than its confirmed realities.
There are two plot twists which line back half of the film. Both are surprising in the moment, related to the other, and little more than an advanced version of a layered dream sequence. OtherLife, in its quest to trip out the viewer, ends up falling victim to some key tenants that such storylines seek to avoid; namely, the validity of things which happen within the dreams, and how the revelation alters the structure of the movie. Lucas demonstrates many kinds of advantageousness, and how they are thought out, at different points. At the start, we are drawn in by the high concept and admire the screenplay’s ability to string us along. By the end, we have grown tired of the circular plotting and the tremendous leaps which fall flat. Ren is no longer a headstrong protagonist, she is a sounding board off which scenes and information bounce.
Yet the talent established early on holds steady. Cinematographer Dan Freene frames the film with a pleasant variety of lighting ranging from gently moody to eerily clinical, and in the action scenes, keeps a firm lid on what’s actually going on. The cast’s ensemble efforts maintain a hold over the proceedings. And Lucas’ directorial skills bring the various elements together into a well-paced package. OtherLife struggles elsewhere, as the script is less unified than all these other parts. The movie is intelligent in the sense that it fleshes out the implications of its central conceit, but is underdeveloped in the sense that many things forever remain implications.