Millennial Malaise 30: Virtuosity

In Which the Serial Killer is Coming From Inside the Computer

As I finished watching Virtuosity, the 1995 film by Brett Leonard (him of Lawnmower Man fame) about rogue serial killer AI Sid 6.7 (Russell Crow) and a the disgraced cop Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) tasked with tracking it down, I came to a quasi-conclusion about why I am so enthralled by these cybejunk techno thrillers from the time. Part of it is a sort inherent retro-futurism. Pieces of entertainment that project foreword in time with the misinformation of the present, assuming that the tone and the aesthetics of the moment will only carry forward and be amplified instead of changing as they always do. The other part is that these works might be the last vanguard of mainstream kitsch released by big studios.

You see Virtuosity is a very serious movie. It’s a film that deeply wants to interrogate the moral line of killing, and where that line moves from necessary to excessive bloodlust. It wants to engage with ideas about AI and rogue programming. It wants to take the ‘we’re not so different, you and I,” trope and turn it into a thorough investigation of identity in the oncoming digital age. It wants to do these things, and does in a way, but never in a manner that makes the film deep or thoughtful.

Because you see Virtuosity is a very silly movie. A film with VR setups that are combination carnival ride and hair dryer, a movie where the edgy version of cable television is called Is? TV, a piece of kino where  the cool club involves DJs flicking glowing plastic orbs to create house music while video art displays in the background. Virtuosity is a hilarious piece of entertainment, but for none of the reasons it wants to be. And the combination of the serious minded storytelling with the riotously out of date aesthetic considerations create a heady broth of “so bad, it’s good” entertainment.

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Virtuosity is only able to achieve that rarefied level of trashy enjoyment because of its clashing goals, aesthetics and reliance on current trends that seemed like they would last forever. And the way it approaches such levels of absurdist glee seem to be connected to things that are now lost to time. That’s not to say we are running of this type of filmic form any time soon (the recent years have brought the delights of such disasters as The Book of Henry, The Snowman, Life Itself, and Serenity) but what makes Virtuosity fun is that it was straight down the middle fair. A pitch to the back seats and a wide audience, something to be enjoyed by everyone who could get into a movie with an R-rating.

Virtuosity is also an obvious trend chaser. A film that idly combines two of the most lucrative forms of 90’s entertainment into one horrendous mish-mash. Yes the film is two great tastes that are awkwardly slapped together as Leonard and company decide to slam the serial killer thriller genre in with the VR techno dystopia genre. The result is a parade of cliches to both that are heightened by some delightfully garish pieces of set design and action direction, and bizarrely committed performances from the two leads of the film.

In it’s own way Virtuosity is a beautiful movie. One staunchly committed to it’s “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to image. A world suffused both with vivid splashes of hypercolor, and the suffocating smog of downtown LA. It’s textured in an attempt to seem hip and with it. A scene includes a sexy computer lady lounging in front of giant CG chess pieces that move willy-nilly in the background. LA itself is a wonderland of late century theoretical futures: stuffed with psychedelic clubs, malls overflowing with TVs, and stadium filling UFC shows (a prediction that is probably the most accurate). It’s the kind of cinematic vision that might, at one point down the road, inspire a Tim Burton-esque individual to make a movie like Ed Wood or Mars Attacks out of the junky aspects of the cyberpunk era.

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But set dressing alone cannot carry a movie like this into bemused likability. No you need some true star power for that, which Denzel Washington and Russel Crowe delightfully provide. Washington (who already had an Oscar and recently played Malcom X) lends intense gravitas to the proceedings, doing his darnedest to sell this material as something other than a live action cartoon. He doesn’t actually succeed, but he does allow something grounded enough to act as a touchstone for quasi-humanity. The exact opposite is true of Crowe, who seems to think that the best way to embody the role of a mass murdering computer program is to emulate Jim Carrey in The Mask. He bounces around the screen with manic glee, conspiring new over the top ways to extinguish all human life that appears before him. Does that mean composing a song out of people screaming? Yes. Doing multiple backflips and extensive parkour? Absolutely. Engaging in a parody of the opening of Saturday Night Fever that ends with him snapping a stranger’s neck? You got to believe it.

This whole article might seem like a bit of a breathless endorsement of Virtuosity, which isn’t really the case. The movie is nigh incomprehensible on a plot and character level. The action, while kinetic and stylish, is disjointed and messy. And there were plenty of times where characters get bogged down in grafs of expository dialog. You could feel the weight of the relatively slim 106 minute run time, and oh are there points where you’ll reach for your phone. But what’s here is still giddy fun for nostalgics and those drunk on specific aesthetics. Virtuosity stands as an ideal for the kitsch appeal for the time, offering a woozy template for culture vultures to swoop by and re-purpose.

Odds and Ends

  • Sid 6.7 is a program made by teaching AI the personalities of some the worst people in history including Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Hitler.
  • Though the film doesn’t quite reach the insane primitive CG inflected heights of The Lawnmower Man. It moves along at a more vigorous clip, would be the better choice at your local bad movie night.
  • There are two dramatic fights that take place near giant fans. Really just an inexplicable image that is repeated.
  • What is with cyberpunk films set in LA that find the metro so fascinating?
  • Washington has a robot arm in this movie.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next week we wallow some more in the dregs of 95 cyber thrillers with Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net.