Full disclosure, up front: I believe I am coming down with the flu. This worries me because I just had the flu. I also had the flu shot, back in September. And yet, sometime around noon today, I was overtaken by the clammy, familiar embrace of flu symptoms. As I write this, I have a fever of 99.9 F. But the symptoms didn’t hit me until I’d already driven up to meet a friend to see Replicas, the hot new Keanu Reeves movie that was so good its release was bumped from August to January. So I saw Replicas while my brain was slowly overheating behind my eyes. This is potentially the best way to experience Replicas.
Imagine you could put a human mind into a robot. Imagine the mind doesn’t know this ahead of time. Imagine that the mind is originally housed in a body that gets shot to smithereens, and is then wheeled before Keanu Reeves, who declares: “This man is dead.” That mind is fighting an uphill battle. That mind is going in android #345.
Reeves plays a scientist named Will Foster. Will works at a company called Bionyne, which is the sort of detail I would love obsessing over if I couldn’t feel how hot my face is right now. I think Bionyne is in Puerto Rico. It’s never entirely clear where the transplant candidates are coming from. Dialogue suggests they’re soldiers, and the guy at the beginning certainly looks like he lost a firefight, but I’m not sure with whom.
Bionyne is working on porting human consciousness over from recently deceased bodies. It’s not going well. We know that because, when robot 345 is turned on at the beginning of the movie, the disorganized human consciousness inside immediately goes mad.
I want to tell you about this robot. It’s nothing special as far design goes, but to see it in the movie is to travel back to the dawn of special effects. Whoever animated it didn’t add blur, and so the robot moves in a series of still steps, like a stop-motion model. The only reason I’m sure it wasn’t a stop motion model is because the rendering wasn’t super-great, either.
Will works with a man named Ed, who is played by Thomas Middleditch. Ed is the answer to the question, What if the future was casual?
Beyond being Will’s coworker, Ed is his friend, and, over the course of the movie, his confidante, his co-conspirator, his voice of reason, and, ultimately, a casualty of his hubris. Ed does all this while sporting a look I’m going to call “Young Columbo.”
Replicas, for most of its runtime, does not have anything that could truly be called a villain. Instead – you won’t believe this, guys – Will’s whole family dies and he decides to bring them back from the dead. The core conflict is between Will’s desire to play God and his desire to not get caught playing God.
More on that in a second, but I want to tell you, the scene where the Foster family dies is a hell of a thing. A tree falls on their moving car, and they careen over an embankment and into a lake. Will pulls himself free, realizes everyone else has died, and utters a mournful cry of “Uggggh!”
Then he fishes his loved ones out of the lake and lovingly piles them on the shore. Then he calls Ed.
Ed rolls up, and we see the new Will. He’s changed. He’s ready to violate science to soothe his shattered heart. He’s wearing pants that are completely wet except for the groin, which makes it look like he’s wearing chaps. Once you see it, you won’t be able to see anything else. Will has asked Ed to bring the tech tiara that copies minds, and only when Ed sees the dead bodies does he realize what’s going on.
With the information available so far, you might think that Will is going to bring his family back as robots. Surprise! Bionyne also does clones. Ed doesn’t WANT to clone humans, but it’s not like he CAN’T.
This sets up the movie’s second act, which is by far the funniest part. Will and Ed steal several million dollars’ worth of cloning shit from the lab. You don’t see how they do this. You just see the moving van parked in front of Will’s house, full of cloning “pods” and 55-gallon drums of amino acids.
They have to grow Will’s replacement family in his garage, while trying to make sure nobody finds out they are doing this. You could replace the clones with weed to have the movie Replicas FEELS like: A stoner comedy where one brilliant, troubled man grows a forbidden strain of weed, one that can unlock humanity’s true potential.
Ed – who seems to specialize in cloning, despite also being attached to Will’s robotics project – tells Will it will take 17 days for the new clone bodies to mature. He also says that a power interruption of even seven seconds could destroy the clones. Will doesn’t have a backup generator, so he steals the batteries out of every car in the neighborhood to make an emergency backup. Later, the cops stop by to ask him if he knows anything about the battery thefts. He says “no.” It’s the perfect crime.
The cops do not show up again. Will’s backup power thing never comes into play.
Tragically, Ed only had three of the cloning pods, which are large Plexiglas cubes. Will had four family members: His wife Mona (Alice Eve), son Matt (Emjay Anthony), and daughters Sophie (Emily Alyn Lind) and Zoe (Aria Lyric Lebeau). Will writes all their names down on scraps of paper, then tries to make Ed pick one out of a bowl. Ed refuses, possibly the only time in the movie he stands up to Will. Hard cut to Will, sitting at the kitchen table, head bowed, bowl at his side, sobbing uncontrollably. He has chosen Zoe, the youngest.
I forgot to mention this earlier, but Will spends important chunks of the movie wearing something like a high tech face shield. He uses this to interact with digitized minds. Sometimes you see what he sees – clouds of neurons, important words – and sometimes you see a close-up of his face from the front, like Tony Stark inside the Iron Man suit. Sometimes, the close-up shots have the words set so that they’d be backwards from his point of view.
Anyway, he uses this thing to erase Zoe from the memories of the others, whose minds he can search and edit like a database. Is this ethically troubling, and possibly worthy of study? Sure, but I can’t look sideways fast without getting dizzy right now.
Will is also tasked with pretending to be ALL his family members across various digital platforms, which is quite possibly the only part of this movie that was supposed to be as funny as it is. He resorts to everything but doing falsetto on the phone. This shit is gold.
You really get to appreciate Will’s house as the backdrop against which this tableau plays out. Do you remember mid-Aughts house flipping shows? Do you remember how the go-to was always repainting the entire thing beige, because nobody hates beige? Will lives in one of those houses. The inside is beige. The outside is beige. Weird lighting tricks render the outside daytime shots strangely flat, the better to embeigen. The curtains are beige. The sunlight filtering in on Will’s god-quest appears to be beige.
Late in the runtime – I couldn’t tell you HOW late, because time in my mind is kind of in flux right now – Will boots his new family into consciousness. The way they act at breakfast the following morning is… weird. But half the people in this movie talk like they’re reading off-screen cue cards that have single words written on each one. There are strong, certain hints that something is wrong with Will’s new Stepford Wife and their beautiful Stepford Children, but those hints never go anywhere. Maybe they’re being saved for a sequel, along with the battery backup in the garage.
The robot shows up again near the end, though.
It’s hard to do justice to the texture of this movie, the way it never seems to know what it wants to say, but knows how badly it wants to say it. An early version of the movie’s Wikipedia page states, without citation, that it is set in “a Christofascist collectivist future.” The world of Replicas is so hazy on details that this could actually be true, just as it could be a wholesale fabrication by a troll.
Replicas was directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff (co-writer of The Day After Tomorrow) and written by Chad St. John, who wrote the screenplay for London Has Fallen. I don’t know enough about either of them to say if Replicas is representative of their work, but it’s fun to imagine this in someone’s highlight reel.
Replicas shares a strange quality with 2017’s The Snowman: In short bursts, it can pass for a normal film. A film in which Keanu Reeves does not sob next to a bowl. A film in which Thomas Middleditch does not tell Keanu Reeves that he doesn’t want to get caught in his “sucking hole of lies.”
In short bursts, Replicas is a story about failing to cope with loss, and the way technology prompts us to remake ourselves.
In long takes, Replicas is a story about a dude who just wants to grow some clones, man, and implant dead people’s memories in them! But then the government gotta mess everything up, it’s bogus.