REVIEW: OtherLife (2017)

otherlife_posterRen (Jessica De Gouw) is the designer of OtherLife, a liquid substance that can be dropped onto the eyeball and re-program the human brain. As the release date for its recreational use fast approaches, Ren spends an increasing amount of time on her own secret project. When her business partner Sam (T.J. Power) comes with a lucrative offer from the Department of Corrections to use OtherLife as an alternative to incarceration Ren is horrified – but opposing such a high-value offer has made her a target.

OtherLife is a science fiction film from Perth-based filmmaker Ben C. Lucas (Wasted on the Young). It does a superb job of spinning a smart, engaging thriller out of a modest production budget, and marks a fresh and still comparatively rare Australian contribution to science fiction cinema. Sadly, it does not quite vault from being a solid genre entry into something ground-breaking or progressive, thanks to a string of comparatively safe choices in the plot.

Where it does excel is in taking the sort of well-established virtual reality tropes of such films as Total Recall and grounding them in a much more contemporary context. The virtual reality of OtherLife is a chemical one, applied via a liquid agent, and combined with scenes of Ren being interrogated over the drug’s safety and ethical concerns it feels genuine and believable. It may be a science fiction, but it feels aggressively contemporary at the same time. As with all science fiction cinema, making the science fiction parts seem real is half of the battle – and it is a half that OtherLife absolutely wins. It also rather clever to see virtual reality, something often presented in film and television as a drug-like experience, presented as an actual narcotic.

Where the film struggles is in the predictable story. Twists and turns in the narrative feel predictable and unfold in ways that can be seen from far, far ahead. For any viewer half-versed in virtual reality thrillers there will be few surprises to be found. As it stands the film is an entertaining one, but a few more ideas and unexpected developments in the plot and it could have been something tremendous. In that respect it is largely par for the course for writer Gregory Widen, whose previous screenplays such as Highlander, The Prophecy and Backdraft all betray a similar problem: strong ideas, but a relatively ordinary execution.

Jessica De Gouw presents Ren as a complex and damaged figure, and brings a lot of talent to enhance the character and provide additional depth. It is a valuable performance given how much of the film focuses directly on her. There is a bit of a stereotype at work in Ren’s goth fashion sense and demeanour, but design-wise it does look great on screen.

OtherLife is Lucas’ second feature, following his 2010 debut Wasted on the Young. It shows a strong and developing directorial talent. Over the past few years he has mainly been working on miniseries and short works; I really hope he gets the opportunity to work at a feature length again – and soon.

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