Movies

Violentia Explained-Inception Meets Total Recall

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Violentia from director Ray Raghavan has a killer hook.  Sci-fi fans are a tricky bunch.  You either need action and effects to rival LucasFilm Ltd., or you must have an original idea that is intelligent and sufficiently twisty.  It’s hard to reinvent the wheel.  It’s even harder to surprise hardcore sci-fi fans.  They have seen it all, thought of it all, and googled it all ad nauseam.  Big budget films have trouble capturing market share even with tons of money at their disposal.

Micro-budget films HAVE to have a good premise to try to compete.  Violentia has that amazing premise.  A brilliant engineer develops nanotechnology that can cure violence through memory manipulation.  His initial discovery is intended to cure things like brain trauma and Alzheimers.  When his daughter is gunned down in a school shooting, he begins secretly working with a shady government agency(you knew there would be one).  What could go wrong with tinkering with a homicidal killer’s brain?  Let’s just peel that skull back and poke around for a hot second.  Oddly, what goes wrong is not what made this movie interesting, the ending was.

The film is heavily influenced by the drug-fueled psychedelic nightmare  A Clockwork Orange.  If imitation is the purest form of flattery, Raghavan is gushing.  That is not to say this is a knock-off, but rather a love letter to Kubrick’s mind control masterpiece with heavy political overtones.  The entire movie is filled with scattered cut shots recreating the glitches those of us old enough to remember VHS tapes may recognize.  Constantly barraging the viewer with jarring images creates an off-kilter experience that immerses one in the film. 

The movie is shot and edited well, and the acting is understated.  It was obvious Raghavan was confident enough in his concept to allow the actors a more nuanced approach rather than the hyper-kinetic energy they are often saddled with.  David Lewis, as Dr. Anderson, is particularly effective in playing bland confusion which creates a through-line that makes the pay off at the end even more successful.

 The propensity for government agencies and science to go bad are easy to accept.  You have to be living in a cave to not hear the daily stories.  Violence, corruption, power grabs, wars, bombings, shootings, it’s all there.  It’s scary, and Violentia capitalizes on that fear.  If you could remove the possibility of violence, would you?  Should you?  The world of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report certainly seems to think so.  Although Violentia is set in the near future, if not an alternative present the quandary is the same.  Right now, doctors believe it is a mix of our hereditary personality traits and environment that make a killer.  Physical characteristics like high testosterone, low dopamine, and genes MAOA and CDH13 all contribute. 

Not everyone who has these traits becomes a killer, but most killers have these factors.  It becomes a chicken or the egg rabbit hole that is murky at best.  Raghavan approaches the concept from a softer science perspective despite the use of terms like nanobots, head-web helmets reminiscent of the wildly underappreciated Stranger Days, and strange metal viewfinder contraptions that allow the user to watch clips of the subject’s mind like a short film.  The process to cure violence is really just changing one’s perception of the past through memory rather than nanotechnology.

Memory manipulation through nanotechnology is not as far-fetched as you would think.  The computer world has used nanotech in storage for increased stability and size.  In fact, it has been used since the late 1990’s.  Reality meets fiction as technology races ahead at the speed of light.  There is hardly time to ponder the what if’s of the proposal. 

That speedy approach to progress can often come with unintended consequences.  In the real world, we witness self-driving cars that run people over and pharmaceuticals that are intended to cure one thing but often present side effects that are worse. Cult leaders have been programming behavior to persuade their groups since the beginning of time.  Emotional manipulation and behavior modification already exist.  We have all had friends or partners who were experts at gaslighting.  These are all forms of behavior modification, no tech required.  Actual Memory alteration is just the next logical step. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Quaid has whole memories rewritten and overlaid with new ones in the 1990 classic Total RecallJohnny Mnemonic was able to download insane amounts of data directly to his brain using compressed memory enhancements.  Leonardo Dicaprio was able to implant an idea directly into someone’s mind through dreams in Inception.  Finding the trigger for violent behaviors and then altering it, is something psychologist and psychiatrists have been doing since the early days.  By taking current facts and expanding on them, the premise garners the honesty and realism needed to make an excellent sci-fi movie. It must be believable otherwise, there is no urgency to the conflict.

When the twist comes, it is satisfying.  I admit to being tricked by the white noise and static.  It kept my brain busy, when I should have paid attention.  While conclusively proving his own theory of memory-trigger molding, Dr. Anderson(David Lewis) opened himself up to repeat the sins of his past. 

However painful, our memories are necessary to influence our future.  In much the same way that EternalSunshine of The Spotless Mind showed the perils of erasing a part of ourselves, Violentia demonstrates a morality play that is as spot on as it is heavy-handed.  There is no ambiguity about what questions are being asked.  The answers are more equivocal as the ending finds an actual cure for violent behavior.  In the process, he also creates a killer.  Do the scales need to be balanced?  It’s an addictive thought. The age-old thought experiment, should you kill baby Hitler if you had the chance?  Would it matter?  Would a new Hitler step up to fill the void guaranteeing war and genocide?  Would killers become killers, no matter how many memories you alter?

No stranger to the festival circuit this science fiction thriller flew under the radar.  It was generally well-received winning an award for Best Director at the Berlin Sci-Fi Film Festival.  I’m surprised this isn’t on more best of indy films to watch.  More people should discover this ambitious example of thoughtful sci-fi.  Violentia is a cogent film about the fallibility of humans and the dangers of looking to the future without respect for the past.  It is streaming VOD everywhere.

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