Revisiting the Reviled — Virtual Reality and Action Clichés Collide in ‘Virtuosity’

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

1995 would see computers enter the realm of our personal lives more than ever before. The internet would become more and more a part of our daily lives and it all moved at a seemingly accelerated rate. Not wanting to be left behind to this technical boom, it was as a year prior every single executive in Hollywood screamed a variation of, “Sheila, get me that script that had ‘Web’ or ‘Byte’ or ‘Net’ in the title!” 1995 saw the release of Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, The Net, Strange Days, and Virtuosity. All of these films vary wildly in quality, but are all tied together by virtue of a mid-‘90s understanding of the forward nature of technology. As a piece of failed prophecy from that era, Virtuosity was a bad action movie that over the last 20 years has taken on the form of unintentional comedy.

Director Brett Leonard had already made one film concerning virtual reality with 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, which is probably better known for the misleading addition of Stephen King’s name to the promotional materials even though the film barely resembled any of the author’s work. Using an original script by Eric Bernt, Virtuosity is about an artificial intelligence program that escapes the virtual world and enters reality. The only caveat is that Sid 6.7, played by Russell Crowe, is an amalgam of serial killers and psychotics, the ultimate villain designed to train law enforcement officers. The only man who can stop Sid 6.7 is Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington), the only one who defeated Sid 6.7 in the simulation. But Parker is a former cop imprisoned for accidentally killing a couple of reporters who were interviewing the man who killed his wife and child. Since this is an action movie, Parker is offered a pardon in exchange for stopping this killing machine.

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The opening scene of Virtuosity is a forefather to a much more memorable scene in The Matrix. Parker Barnes and John Donovan (Costas Mandylor) are participating in an immersive virtual reality situation. The surroundings are unresponsive and repetitive background noise, as you’d experience in many of the era’s video games. The costume design for the two characters is remarkably silly, yet this sequence is more interesting than anything else in the movie. The evil program had manipulated the system and kills Donovan by electrocution.

Facing a possible shutdown, Sid 6.7’s creator Lindenmeyer (Stephen Spinella) convinces his co-worker, who is developing Nano-android technology, to test out his new invention by creating Sheila 3.2, which would basically function as a milestone in sex-bots for the ages. But Lindenmeyer has swapped out Sheila 3.2 files for Sid 6.7’s, creating this personification of evil. This, however, brings us to the first logical problem in Virtuosity – how are there 3.5 more updates to a serial killer program instead of the interactive sex-bot? It also flies in the face of capitalism as there is certainly greater demand for sex-bots than serial killers. Lindenmeyer’s employee review should’ve indicated that he had an unhealthy obsession with developing the ultimate serial killer more than perfectly functioning virtual fucking. That’s a fireable offense.

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As the meticulously designed mass murderer, Russell Crowe goes extremely over the top as Sid 6.7. He’s a self-obsessed showman, using brutality as a form of sensationalism. Of course, Crowe would break out later in L.A. Confidential, but at least in 1995 he had the distinction of being the best thing in a bad movie. While Crowe gives it his all, the character is still entirely programmed, which doesn’t exactly leave the character with any real motivation. And since the film has Parker Barnes’ arch nemesis in his programming, it becomes personal. The criminal psychologist Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch) seems like she was the victim of massive rewrites. The extent of her purpose is to explain parts of Sid 6.7’s psyche and have a child that the villain can kidnap and place in danger for the climatic finale.

As an action film, Virtuosity is lacking in many, many areas. First off all, Brett Leonard isn’t particularly adept at staging action, especially the hand-to-hand fights. Secondly, Sid 6.7 only needs glass to regenerate any damage to his body. He’s simply too impervious. This situation leads an extremely comical moment when Sid 6.7 has been impaled by multiple shards of glass. Barnes walks up slowly, asking where a kidnapped child is – he does know that glass allows Sid 6.7 to regenerate, by the way – before the wounded android begins his regeneration process, placing Barnes in the line of danger. Gee, nobody saw that coming. But since the film can’t even generate enough conflict between its two leads, Virtuosity features a subplot where Barnes has been framed. In a world where the virtual transcends reality, a battle between good and evil, between two sides of the same coin, only this time it’s personal, and a fugitive must bring a madman down in order to earn his freedom.

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Despite its numerous deficiencies, Virtuosity gets a few things right about the near future, mainly the rise of MMA. During a televised sporting event, Sid 6.7 commits murder in front of a larger audience, simultaneously appeasing his bloodlust and narcissism. Amazingly, this is set during a UFC fight. Had anyone actually seen the film, perhaps UFC wouldn’t be so popular today. The movie presents the fight as this bizarre ritual where people chant and pump their fists while yelling “Kapow!” When a murderous psychopath throws someone off the mezzanine, they cheer louder, their chants of “Kapow!” continuing unimpeded. Sure, someone just got murdered, but the show must go on. Kapow!

Of the 1995 barrage of internet films, Virtuosity is the most forgettable because it’s the most familiar. Aside from a few brief moments, the film is desperately short of anything being resoundingly bizarre or bewildering. It’s just this boring kind of stupid, and that’s no fun. Maybe there was a really interesting draft of the screenplay that got lost in the ether when someone picked up the phone mid-email. That would make the most sense. This is a film that looks at the future with the speed and wonder of a dial-up modem.

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