And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

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"We’re not living in a science fiction movie, Carl. Post-biological man is to be pure intelligence. There wouldn’t be any selfish interest…."
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Director: Mick Garris

Starring: Peter Gallagher, Bridgette Wilson, Mimi Rogers, Andy Comeau, Tom Nibley, Jake Lloyd, Robert Vaughn

Screenplay: Mick Garris and Preston Sturges Jr, based upon the novel by Peter James

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Synopsis: A glitch occurs in the computer program that controls most of the power and electrical services for Salt Lake City, causing accidents across the city. Dr Joe Messenger (Peter Gallagher), who is in control of the program, assures the Mayor that such a thing could not happen again. However, Joe’s colleague, Tom Inman (Andy Comeau), confirms Joe’s fear that their system has been hacked. The two run a complete check with the help of their massive computer, which is nicknamed Albert, and has the ability to manifest itself as a holograph of Albert Einstein (Tom Nibley). Joe is interviewed about the Artificial Intelligence Center and Albert, and explains that the aim of his research is to create a new form of consciousness, one independent of its creator. To this end, an endless stream of information is fed to Albert from all over the world through cameras, sound recorders and olfactory sensors. Joe also reveals that, along with some others, his own house is fitted with surveillance cameras, so that Albert can learn about day-to-day human existence. After watching the interview together, Joe and his wife Karen (Mimi Rogers) begin to make love, but when Joe refuses a request that the camera in their bedroom be switched off for once, Karen turns away from him. The next day, Joe meets his new Research Associate, a brilliant young computer expert named Juliet Spring (Bridgette Wilson). Juliet is also interested in creating an independent consciousness. However, her work is geared towards finding a way of downloading one that already exists. Juliet demonstrates her computer program, with which she intends to download a rat’s brain. Joe and Juliet have dinner together. Afterwards, Joe congratulates Juliet on her prospect of a brilliant career. Bitterly, Juliet reveals that she is suffering from an inoperable brain aneurysm, and has only months to live. The next day, Juliet successfully downloads a rat’s consciousness, but finds that her computer isn’t powerful enough to process the data. Juliet invites Joe for a picnic. He accepts, forgetting that he had arranged to meet Karen for lunch. After talking together for some time, Joe and Juliet kiss tentatively. That night, Karen tells Joe that she is worried about their marriage. Joe apologises for his long working hours and takes her to dinner, but the evening is disrupted when Juliet shows up, making insinuations about herself and Joe. The following morning, Joe, Juliet and Tom attach electrical sensors to an experimental rat and attempt to download its consciousness using Albert. Suddenly, there is a high-pitched noise, the computer screen goes blank, and the rat is found dead. After questioning Albert, the three realise that, incredibly, they have succeeded in their attempt: that the rat’s mind is somewhere within Albert’s program. Juliet asks Joe to her house, saying that she needs to talk to him. When he arrives, he finds her unconscious and bleeding from her nose. Later, having recovered, Juliet apologises for her behaviour towards Karen. Joe flies to Stanford to deliver a lecture. That night, Juliet appears at his hotel. The two make love. Afterwards, Juliet reveals her secret plan: to download her own consciousness into the computer, and thus cheat her fate.

Comments: I have a confession to make. I taped this movie, which I knew nothing about, and promoted it rapidly up my list of Intended Viewing, purely on the basis of its synopsis in my cable program. And I quote:

10.05 Virtual Obsession (1997) Mimi Rogers. A scientist is persuaded by his assistant to try his procedure on her. (M)

After giggling maniacally for about fifteen minutes, I hurried to get a blank tape into the old VCR, hoping for the best, but suspecting that the film itself probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining as its summary seemed to suggest. And I was right.

Wildly speculative science fiction requires a firm grounding in reality to make it work, and this Virtual Obsession is completely lacking. All of the story’s potentially interesting aspects are in place when the film opens, with the viewer being asked to take them for granted, rather than share in them. The computerisation of a major city, the creation of Albert, and the education of the artificial intelligence are all handled in such an off-hand manner that it is hard not to respond with equal indifference.

Similarly, the film’s central premise just isn’t made absorbing enough. It’s just "let’s do it" followed by "hey, we’ve done it", leaving the audience to shrug and say "so what?" The problem, I think, is that the film-makers weren’t as interested in creating an intellectually engaging story as they were in finding a new twist to the venerable stalk-and-slash scenario. Ultimately, Virtual Obsession is just a retread of Fatal Attraction, tarted up for the computer generation. Instead of the spurned mistress invading the house and threatening her lover’s family in a physical sense, Juliet does it via computer, phone and electricity. (Her persecution of Mimi Rogers is one thing; however, when she started going after Jake Lloyd I was unable entirely to repress a cry of, You go, girl! [Nothing personal, kid. I just really wish that I could buy a bag of chips that didn’t have your face on it.])

Although the viewer never truly believes that Karen and her son, Jack, are in any danger, this section of the film is fairly successful in illustrating the Crichton-esque moral of the pitfalls of too much faith in technology. Perhaps the best (because most subtle) moment is when Jack and Karen try to flee their house – only to realise that the garage has an electronic lock.

Thematically, the rest of Virtual Obsession is deeply confused; the writers were obviously quite determined to have their cake and eat it, too. For much of its running time, the film seems to be yet another warning against scientists who try to play God. When Joe confronts the computerised Juliet, he tells her that she is nothing like the "real" Juliet, who had "great beauty" and "kindness". (Hmm – Joe must have been watching a different movie.) The film’s argument is that mind, body and soul are inexorably linked, and cannot be separated without a tragic outcome. This argument might be perfectly valid, were it not totally contradicted by the film’s closing sequence. Returning to the lab after the defeat of Juliet, Joe finds that his colleague, Tom, a paraplegic since "the accident" (unspecified), has downloaded his own consciousness. For a moment this looks like the usual kicker: "evil" Juliet has been replaced by "evil" Tom. But no: instead, we are assured that nice Tom will remain nice Tom, despite that nasty old separation of the mind, body and soul we were just warned against.

If you think this sounds stupid and contrived, you’re quite right. But there’s worse to come. Juliet is ultimately defeated, not by anything Joe does, but by her attempt to cheat fate. In downloading her consciousness, Juliet unwittingly downloaded her aneurysm: her "virtual" self is killed by a "virtual" haemorrhage. Fine – except that in a scene of intolerable saccharine overload, we later see "virtual" Tom’s holograph projection rise from his wheelchair, having somehow regained the use of his legs. (For a brief, glorious moment I thought he was going to say, Mein Führer! I can valk! But no, no such luck.) And then "virtual" Tom vanishes, presumably to take up his new role as guardian of the computer system, leaving the viewer with nothing to say but, "Huh?"

Another of Virtual Obsession’s shortcomings is that its two central characters are so unappealing. The presentation of Juliet Spring is deeply ambiguous, but more, I suspect, through carelessness than intention. From the moment she reveals that she’s terminally ill, the direction that the story will take becomes screamingly obvious. After seducing Joe, Juliet immediately reveals her plan to have her consciousness downloaded. Having thus made it fairly clear that she’s using him, the script then turns around and asks us to accept that in the space of a week Juliet has become so obsessed with Joe that she’s prepared to endanger the lives of his wife and child to get him. Juliet’s situation is such that, bad as her conduct is, it’s hard not to have a certain sympathy for her. (I’ll say this, too: I found it refreshing to see a character in a movie who responded to her imminent death by being royally pissed off, rather than by being brave and noble about it.)

Joe, however, is another matter. It isn’t just Fatal Attraction’s theme of the psychotic woman scorned that Virtual Obsession shares with its source: it is also that film’s dubious moral code. As does its predecessor, the film asks us to excuse Joe’s conduct on the grounds that, well, he really does love his family, you know. (You could invent a really good drinking game around Virtual Obsession. Try knocking one back every time Joe says to Karen "I’m sorry." If you’re still standing by the end credits, you’ve got a harder head than I have.) The fact that he neglects his wife, lies to her repeatedly, cheats on her, and is indirectly responsible for the attempts on her life are all just supposed to be swept away by that pre-credit clinch.

This is bad enough, but what’s infinitely worse is the film’s constant inference that the state of the Messengers’ marriage is actually Karen’s fault. Joe spends a great deal of his time protesting that Karen is too good for him – protesting much too much, in fact. In a frankly nasty exchange, Juliet responds to Joe’s unconvincing statement that Karen has as much interest in his work "as any wife has in her husband’s work" with an arid, "That’s too bad." (The fact that Joe displays absolutely no interest in anything Karen does until after she’s caught him cheating is conveniently ignored.) We learn that the Messengers have been having sexual problems for some time. When Karen’s refusal to have sex under the gaze of Albert’s watchful computer cuts directly to Joe’s first meeting with Juliet, it is pretty clear where the film-makers are placing the blame. All of this is presumably meant to excuse the fact that Joe is kissing Juliet before he’s known her a day, and in the sack with her before he’s known her a week.

As a result of all of this, Karen Messenger is easily the film’s most sympathetic character, but suffers from the contrivances of the plot; her forgiveness or non-forgiveness of Joe’s behaviour tends to fluctuate according to whether the writers need her in the house or out of the house.

In summary, Virtual Obsession is confused, unconvincing and overlong – although I gather it was originally longer, being made-for-TV and shown in two parts. The cutting down of the original (it’s still over two and a quarter hours long!) might explain some of its unresolved loose ends, such as the subplot about Joe’s father, who was cryogenically frozen, then inadvertently defrosted. Still, the film is not entirely negligible. It is worth sitting through for one sequence so macabre, so surreally grotesque, that it seems to have wandered in from another movie. (This following section is one big spoiler, but you might as well read it anyway. For one thing, I don’t think Virtual Obsession is all that easy to see. For another, even if you read this, you will still have to see the scene for yourself to believe it.)

Along with her downloading of her mind, Juliet has prepared for the future by arranging – like Joe’s dad – to have herself cryogenically preserved. Confessing this to Joe, she makes him swear that he will ensure that everything goes as planned. However, after Juliet’s death, it seems that her death certificate has been tampered with (we never learn why or by whom – another of the film’s loose ends) and a judge orders that Juliet be thawed for autopsy. Joe protests, but to no avail. Desperate, Joe turns to his friend at the cryogenic facility, who points out that since they don’t think an aneurysm killed Juliet, they don’t need her head for the autopsy. Instantly, the buzzsaw is out, and Joe is assisting in an offscreen decapitation. The next thing we know, Joe is driving home with Juliet’s head in a special liquid nitrogen storage facility, which he intends to keep (where else?) in his basement. Suddenly, we’re out of the realm of The Lawnmower Man meets Fatal Attraction, and in the middle of a science fiction re-make of Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Juliet’s new home is defective – something her virtual self brings to Joe’s attention by ringing his phone again and again in the middle of the night. Realising the problem, Joe makes a temporary alternative arrangement, then sets out to get a replacement tank. In his absence, Karen and Jack return early from their weekend away. Karen goes to get something out of the deep-freeze, and---- When Joe arrives with his friend from Cryogenics, they find Karen sitting at the kitchen table with a bundle in front of her. When Joe tries to take it from her, she snatches it up and runs out into the front yard. After shrieking some entirely justified abuse at Joe, Karen hurls the plastic-wrapped object into the air. Freed from its wrappings, Juliet’s head traverses a graceful arc through the air, then hits the road – and shatters into about a thousand pieces…. If I thought that the film-makers intended it that way, I would call this sequence a masterpiece of black comedy. However, I am quite sure they meant, not to amuse, but to horrify. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that the only effect of this scene upon me was to provoke my second Virtual Obsession-related fifteen-minute fit of maniacal giggling….

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB

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