By Elias Savada.
The general belief that there is seemingly civil attitude toward one another in our planet’s clean, sterile looking future reflects the sci-fi genre’s long-standing notion that there is no clutter in our lives down the road. As seen in Realive, an existential look into life after death from Spanish-born director-writer Mateo Gil, one man’s wish for immortality through cryonization is explored through a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. This seems a fitting third theatrical feature from the director of 2011’s Blackthorn, a western starring the late Sam Shepard as an introspective what-if-he-didn’t-die Butch Cassidy. Whether adrift on the South American prairie like the American outlaw, rechristened as James Blackthorn, or alone in the year 2085 as Marc Jarvis (Tom Hughes) in Gil’s newest feature, there’s a certain loneliness in both characters, trying to adjust to a life they did not expect.
Broken into multiple chapter segments, the film opens with something you don’t usually witness – a live birth, written as that of film’s main character and setting that brief action sometime in the later third of the 20th century. It’s accompanied by the increasingly annoying audio commentary delivered by Marc, a voiceover which reflects on his life and reincarnation as an embittered observer rather than what he appears on screen – a reluctant, recuperating participant in a medical experiment. The cinematography by Pau Esteve Birba is reminiscent of the wide screen meditations you would find in the films of Terrence Malick, but the story is anything but (at least it makes more sense than anything in Malick’s more recent films).
With its obvious overtures to the Frankenstein monster and its obsessively driven creator – here embodied by Dr. West (Barry Ward), a sly Steve Jobs wannabe who envisions his Project Lazarus as a step to humankind’s salvation, you could guess his first name before hearing it. Victor. As you learn more about West’s Dr. Moreau’s approach to his patients, you might suspect the good doctor’s condescending bedside manner hides well his economic incentives and those festered by Prodigy Health Corporation, his state-of-the-art medical conglomerate. It’s immaculate headquarters is a wide open, all-white office space filled with holographic imagery, gesture-driven touch screens, and a flowing camera that caresses the company’s “good deeds.”
Aside from the cosmetic sterility that surrounds the story – the rebirth of the first human from deep sleep – for Marc, it is a complicated process exacerbated by the need to rebuild 80 per cent of his body, a relic of atrophied muscles and damaged tissue, and replace with prosthetic and cloned parts the numerous failed organs left too long in a frozen meat locker. All that lovely hair is gone save his eyebrows. There are even some bionic implants, but it’s not his great-great-great-great-grandfather’s Six Million Dollar Man. He needs constant refinements, surgeries, plenty of drugs, and lord knows what other physical fixins to prep him for his introduction to corporate underwriters who might benefit from his fragile guinea pig status. Will it mimic the glorious birth of the first iPhone, or the disastrous introduction of the failed Zune? As for the emotional and metaphysical issues that playing God brings with it, that’s what the film wants you to fathom.
But, damn, those voiceovers continue to show the weakness in the screenwriting, as the images float between Marc’s blond-haired childhood (with its own brief excursion into animal dissection), on his adult life in California as an artist running a creative agency (when he has full facial auburn hair), and when his finality is set by a brain cancer diagnosis in October 2015. That puts a damper on his relationship with his often on-and-off-girlfriend Naomi Keller (Oona Chaplin, Charlie’s granddaughter, great-granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill), who is equal parts terrified and angry at her partner’s ultimate decision.
Marc’s spirituality is steeped in the poems of Walt Whitman, particularly the elevating works found in Leaves of Grass, a copy of which Marc fingers as he disassembles all that he had built up prior to his “death.” (The book reappears later as part of his personal time capsule.) That’s the thought process going through Gil’s mind, too, I suspect. A meditation on life. He discusses his decision with his friends in a 2015-set scene, where Marc earnestly, perhaps foolishly, puts his fate in the hands of humanity; that trust will be tested in his re-awakened state.
As the film movies deeper into the future tense of its structure, Gil’s screenplay opens Marc’s dazed and confused eyes to a changed society and the role his beautiful, no-one-ages-poorly-here 46-year-old nurse-attendant Elisabeth Mansfra (well played by 31-year-old wide-eyed French-Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon, featured in The Promise and The Hundred-Foot Journey). Relationships are passé by Realive‘s standards, and Elisabeth’s nurturing of her patient is certainly not part of today’s accepted nursing model.
In the future, when ample time and great resources ($$$) are required for reanimation, Realive will push the emotional buttons on the ethical conundrums that will greet the newly reborn, adrift in a world different from the one they left behind decades earlier. With a common mind-writing recorder/player the future finds that memories don’t have to be lost. They can be retrieved and restored from backups. In that sense, the film touches on what is perceived versus what appears real, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis’s Contact did more effectively 20 years ago.
As produced for SyFy Films, this European-made, English-language film is a vast improvement for a network known for shlock and kitsch fare. It’s a nice enough diversion to catch on video-on-demand, where’s its playing now after a very short theatrical window.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).