'Brand New-U': Edinburgh Review
British documentary maker Simon Pummell makes his dramatic feature debut with a cerebral sci-fi thriller about human replicants and sinister corporations.
An atmospheric exercise in philosophical science fiction, writer-director Simon Pummell's debut dramatic feature explores questions of identity, surveillance and the universal human hunger for self-improvement. A Holland-based Brit best known for his experimental documentaries Bodysong and Shock Head Soul, Pummell has also worked as a visiting professor at Harvard. Premiered at last month's Edinburgh Film Festival, Brand New-U is a rich and allusive work, intellectually ambitious and visually arresting. But it also has budget limitations and formal flaws, and may prove too willfully esoteric for the sci-fi fanboy masses. While further festival play seems assured, theatrical prospects will depend on smart marketing to open-minded genre fans.
Full of ominous portent from the start, this British-Irish-Dutch co-production opens with Slater (Downtown Abbey alumni Lachlan Nieboer) heading for a private birthday celebration with girlfriend Nadia (Nora-Jane Noone). But their romantic, lovingly shot, candle-lit party is shattered by a terrifying home invasion. Following a deadly struggle, a gang of masked assailants abduct Nadia. When Slater discovers that the dead raider is a doppelganger for Nadia, apparently intended to replace her, his trip into the Twilight Zone begins.
Following Nadia's trail, Slater answers an invitation from a mysterious corporation who offer clients the chance to erase their lackluster lives and begin again as better, smarter, happier, versions of themselves. Having given Nadia a reboot, they pressure Slater to make his own fresh start. Reasoning this may be his one chance to track down his lost lover, he agrees to plastic surgery, rebranding and relocation. His shiny new life brings a pristine new apartment in a futuristic apartment block, a clutch of new friends and a job in a gleaming factory under constant surveillance by flying robot drones.
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But Slater struggles to comply with the company's strict condition that he must sever all links to his past life and move on, especially after meeting a Nadia clone at work. This version of his former soulmate apparently has no memory of him, even though he still clearly remembers her. Soon, however, company spies see that Slater is breaking his contract and start to make his life difficult. By the film's final act, he has been relocated again to a nocturnal cityscape saturated in infernal red, where he is lured into a lethal showdown with his own double and yet another Nadia replicant, this time a bleach-blonde Hitchcockian femme fatale.
Pummell calls Brand New-U a skewed homage to the classic paranoid thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s, but updated for our over-exposed era of selfies, social media and surveillance. Hitchcock's Vertigo is an obvious inspiration, as is John Frankenheimer's cult 1966 thriller Seconds, which stars Rock Hudson as a jaded businessman who is surgically remodeled and given a glamorous new identity by a shadowy organization. Pummell acknowledges his debt to both. But while some ingredients may be similar, his film ultimately abandons normal narrative rules, sliding off the grid into mind-bending David Lynch or Philip K. Dick territory.
The weaknesses of Brand New-U are party financial, and partly authorial. Squeezing every last drop from a lean budget of less than $2 million, Pummell and his team conjure up an impressively glossy high-tech future-noir world of shiny modernist architecture and seductively minimal interiors. Roger Goula Sarda's droning electronic score is suitably disquieting, and Reiner van Brummelen's cinematography is elastic and imaginative. But the project's frugal resources show through at times, most obviously in some clunky digital effects and Nieboer's stiff, charisma-free performance.
On a basic entertainment level, Pummell delivers flashes of sex, suspense and dark humor, but not the taut pacing and clear plot resolution that the sci-fi thriller genre typically demands. The explanatory key to his nightmarish dystopian fable remains teasingly elusive, apparently by choice. All the same, Brand New-U is still rich in possible meanings, and possessed by a haunting strangeness that lingers long after the credits fade.
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Production company: Hot Property Films
Cast: Lachlan Nieboer, Nora-Jane Noone, Michelle Asante, Tony Way, Nick Blood
Director-screenwriter: Simon Pummell
Producer: Jane Marmiot
Cinematography: Reinier van Brummelen
Editor: Tim Roza
Production designer: Greg Shaw
Music: Roger Goula Sarda
Sales: The Match Factory
Not rated, 100 minutes