We are living in a gilded age for science fiction with a unique litany of movies, television series and books that deal with great concepts, and explore the dark, disturbing depths of where technology may take us. Readers who have an itch for cerebral science fiction will find the entertainment industry is currently scratching in all the right places. But this is January, when Hollywood turns cinemas into a mish-mash of award movies and burning dumpster fires, contractually obligated to be released in theaters. It’s the latter that brought us the Keanu Reeves/mad scientist thriller “Replicas.”
Holy Issac Asimov, where do I begin with this Frankensteinian reimagining gone so horribly wrong? William (Keanu Reeves) is a scientist, working on a way to map the human mind from the recently dead, and insert the virtual intelligence into a cybernetic shell. Its basic science-fiction singularity plotline is taken to ridiculous, highly entertaining places. William works for a sketchy biotech company, which does all experiments in Puerto Rico, away from the prying eyes of federal oversight. After William accidentally kills his entire family in a car accident, he decides to handle the tragedy the only way a mad scientist knows how: map their brains and convince his best friend and lab assistant (Thomas Middleditch) to create clone versions of them.
I laughed a lot at this movie. “Replicas” is an outlandish, unintentionally hilarious film—the kind of film that takes a relatively interesting premise and turns the goofy up to 11. Keanu is so poorly cast in this role. From his attempts at emoting at the death of his family to his deadpan delivery of scientific terminology that sounds like he’s reading “Digital Cloning for Dummies,” his performance is both hilarious and horrifying. Middleditch plays Igor to his Frankenstein and delivers the most amusing version of these characters since Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.” Watching them navigate back and forth between the tragedy of the premise, the tension of trying to keep it all secret and the goofy camaraderie on display, is a testament to their ability as performers. It was almost like watching “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Biotech Adventure.”
Remember the dramatic depths plumbed by Alex Garland in “Ex Machina” or the interesting cybernetic characters dealing with sentience in “Westworld”? Who needs that when we have a cybernetic Keanu Reeves that looks built by an attention-deficit 8-year-old with an erector set. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Keanu’s unique dialect projected through the expressionless face of a short-bus robot. “Replicas” is a beautiful disaster that made me laugh way more than I thought when I bought a ticket.
However, there is good science fiction out there. One example is the most recent experimental entry into Netflix’s “Black Mirror” series, “Bandersnatch.” It’s a choose-your-own-adventure, interactive experience and challenges the audience to dictate the outcome. The main character is an aspiring game designer in the 1980s (Fionn Whitehead) who slowly loses his mind while adapting an insane person’s novel into an 8-bit masterpiece.
Like most “Black Mirror” episodes, it’s a well-crafted, tense story that takes the insane premise to some unthinkable places. Thanks to the added benefit of viewer choice, there are a number of different spiraling paths and possibilities. Most of them are the kind of dire, disorienting twists we’ve come to expect from the series. There’s even a few sharp left turns that take the story into meta territory and made the whole affair seem far more sinister.
The conclusion I came to while watching these wildly different takes on the genre is there is still interesting territory worth exploring within science fiction. There are writers and creators finding fascinating new wrinkles to examine in its storytelling. “Replicas” is the antithesis: tired tropes and regurgitated concepts, presented in the most unintentionally hilarious way possible. Sure, some folks may enjoy “Replicas” on an ironic, so-bad-it’s-good level, but I doubt many people are going to describe it as “challenging” in a good way.