By Jack Dignan
Of the many films I was fortune enough to see at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, one managed to gain my attention despite knowing literally nothing about it. I read through the program several times, planning out my viewings to the best of my capability, and just before finalizing it and booking the sessions in, I stumbled upon OtherLife. It gripped me. Just the teaser image alone, displayed below, had my curiosity raised. And I’m very glad I found this film.
While audiences, myself included, often revel at the dazzling visual displays in $100 million blockbusters, if those films were stripped of their budget, what would they look like? The answer is OtherLife. This is a movie high in concept. Its general premise would imply a more lenient budget way into the millions, but it’s a film without it. Not every director is afforded that luxury, and they shouldn’t have to be. Director Ben C. Lucas finds a way around his apparent restraints, creating a small-scale indie film disguised as a modern day blockbuster. Every dollar has been put to use, bringing this daring and original story to life.
It’s a journey of the mind. Those familiar with Christopher Nolan’s Inception have already been introduced to several of this film’s concepts, most notably the different planes of the subconscious. Time moves slower in there than in the real world, and with OtherLife, a drug has been created that toys with that very concept. You take it, and a virtual experience indistinguishable from real life plays out in your head. You feel like you’re there. It sounds and looks exactly like the real thing. But it’s not. It’s all a pre-programed illusion, and its creator, Ren Amari (Arrow’s Jessica De Gouw), is very proud of what it has become.
Except, complications arise when the company she works for, and her business partner Sam (T.J. Power) see an alternate use for the drug. It doesn’t have to be just another VR experience. There’s potential for so much more, including using the drug as a sort of solitary confinement for first time offenders, where they can experience years worth of sentences in the span of a couple of minutes. Ren and Sam collide. Their business mottos differ. And soon, through unseen circumstances, Ren finds herself trapped inside her mind, living her life in solitary confinement. She needs to figure out an escape before madness consumes her and her business is lost forever.
There’s a sense of genius brimming within its high concept sci-fi story. It’s a fascinating, shocking and thought-provoking journey where the line of morally right is constantly broken. Bad things happen, not just to bad people, and it’s a wrenching experience, but a jaw dropping one at that. The first act does have a tendency to linger, but once things get going, and the second act kicks into gear, the film steps things up a notch. Shit hits the fan. Describing it as sci-fi does disservice the drama, as this is a more character driven financial conflict than it is a sci-fi epic, but the film embraces its genres in the most fascinating of ways.
It’s these characters that take you on the journey, and you’re with them every step of the way. Ren Amari is a complicated, down on her luck protagonist with clear motives and a justifiable reasoning for the way she acts. Her colleagues may not agree with her methods, but she gets the job done, and her personal narrative is full of intrigue and despair. You find yourself connecting with her, and you feel her pain when the going gets rough, or, more accurately, rougher than it already is. De Gouw is fantastic. Everyone in the film feels mostly serviceable (Thomas Cocquerel is pretty great), however it’s De Gouw who takes centre stage with the best role in the film.
While the premise is grounded and fascinating, and the budget is well hidden through stylistic decisions and visuals that’ll no doubt marvel, the story has an infrequent tendency to fall flat. It goes from this grand tale of survival, mixed with personal gain, to a generic on-the-run storyline. A good portion of the middle feels very out of place and less on par with what preceded it. There’s a few twists too many, most of which you can see coming a mile away, but the third act ties things together and brings the film back on track from the generic path it was slowly falling down.
OtherLife is a film full of ideas. They don’t all mesh as well as I would’ve liked, but the ideas in their own right are fascinating and conversation starters. It’s really great just to see an Australian sci-fi film as sophisticated, original and stressful to watch as this one. A post-screening Q&A with the filmmakers gave an insight look into how much time and effort was spent on this movie, and having watched it, everything they tried to pull off feels as if it were done with ease.
3 1/2 Stars
Like the article? Make sure to spread the word on social media.
You May Also Like: