There’s something pleasingly pointed about a man jokingly claimed to be immortal starring in a movie about creating a form of immortality.
Sci-fi cloning film Replicas was also co-produced by Keanu Reeves, whose youthful visage and apparent appearances in portraiture through the ages baffles many who apparently can’t tell the difference between two men with dark hair and beards.
Synthetic biologist Will Foster (Reeves) is more concerned with using the technology he’s developed to help people whose lives have ended too soon, though in theory if you can imprint a human brain onto a synthetic one inside a robot, you can continue replicating them for ever.
At the biotech company Will works for in Puerto Rico, sinister boss Mr Jones’s interest is in its potential role in warfare, if the Board doesn’t shut down Will’s project anyway.
Will has been practising on just-dead subjects, downloading imprints of their brains into synthetic humans. Indeed the most effective moment – in a movie that should be about what grief and loss does to a man when he loses his family – is actually when a test subject wakes up in his new robotic body, experiencing those same emotions over what has happened to him.
Those few seconds of initial terror, followed by unfocused rage, seem to come as a shock to a scientist who considers identity and the self to be merely brain impulses.
Will’s unwavering commitment to this idea is almost robotic in itself, as are his movements as he starts to work on that first subject that we see.
Replicas, finally arriving on these shores on a wave of indifference, had something of a pummelling in the US when it was released in January. The film has been hanging around for ages, and we’ve had a Comic Con panel and umpteen trailers and teasers over the past 18 months. So many trailers that you probably all know by now that Will’s family (wife Mona, three lovely children) die in a car accident when their car plunges into a river during a storm, and a grief-stricken Will brings them back: via cloned bodies and downloaded memories.
What starts off as science fiction moves, about 30 minutes before the end, into thriller territory, as Mr Jones (John Ortiz) and his henchmen come after Will and his family, though it’s not very exciting. The ending is ridiculous, and doesn’t fit with what’s come before (even though some of that is ridiculous too).
Actually if the finish had been smoother I’d have given Replicas a whole two stars. Despite the plot holes, the half-followed up lines of enquiry and the often ponderously bad dialogue, the groundwork for an interesting film is there: identity, grief, ethics, the irony that it’s Will’s humanity that leads him to make so many mistakes, one of which is believing that what makes us human can be reduced to flashes on a screen.
It takes Will’s wife Mona (Alice Eve) to point out to him that switching his human experiments off at the mains when a problem arises is morally repugnant. Mona often acts as Will’s conscience, something that while common – wives often perform emotional labour for their husbands – comes across as clunky. (Though I quite like, from a sci-fi perspective, the idea of a separate conscience!)
The immediate aftermath of the accident feels too cold, and Will’s reactions unlikely, even bearing in mind that time is of the essence if he’s to bring his family back – the ultimate deflection of grief.
Cloning bodies is his colleague Ed’s area of expertise, and the two set up in Will’s basement: bubbling tanks containing the family’s DNA plus the mineral building blocks of a human body. Only three bodies though, as there aren’t enough cloning pods and Will has to choose which child not to save. (Mona is always guaranteed a pod; Will is the kind of man who needs a wife.)
Reeves is best in scenes which display Will’s messy humanity, when the unmapped scientific territory he’s now navigating combines with both his distress and his conviction. Starting the cloning process, he and the very reluctant Ed (Thomas Middleditch) scratch at each other even as they know time is ticking away.
Two weeks later, theirs is an extraordinary scientific victory that can never be talked about, something women scientists down the ages could probably relate to.
Replicas at least starts to examine the practicalities and emotional torture of trying to erase someone from existence. Will is constantly having to go back and tie up forgotten loose ends, evidence of the child he couldn’t clone. It is also, as Mona points out, unutterably cruel to take away from a mother the memories of her child.
Overall though, Replicas is unfocused and muddled. The science sounds unbelievable, the tech often looks daft, some of the acting is dreadful. Small details make it worse: why Will develops a technique that involves sticking a sharp spike in a living person’s eye I don’t know. And the family’s mobile phones still work perfectly even after a thorough immersion in river water.
Mona does looks quite shocked when she finds out her husband has brought her back from the dead, though I’ve seen more extreme reactions from people discovering their loved one voted for Brexit (that could just be Brexit though).
Of all the bad dialogue, the worst is the line “but what if something horrible goes wrong!”, a great example of a sentence going horribly wrong. Though after hearing it in the trailers it was so deeply imprinted on my own brain that I was on tenterhooks waiting for it, like when you go and see Hamlet and you don’t actually want to hear “to be or not to be”, but you can’t settle until you have.
The most interesting question asked in Replicas isn’t about grief and loss, but identity.
Are we brains or bodies or a mixture? Both can be changed through illness, accident and even design. Mona talks of souls. Basic cloning would produce a blank slate, babies with the same DNA, nature but with none of the effects that nurture had on the original “us”.
Will’s cloned, fully-grown bodies, with copied minds and memories – are they still people, let alone the people who died? It’s an ethical maze almost as complex as the visualisations of brain pathways we see on him conjure up, though it’s not a question Replicas is able to answer.
Watch the UK trailer for Replicas: