'OtherLife’: Film Review | Sydney 2017

Knotty sci-fi.

‘Wasted on the Young’ helmer Ben C. Lucas returns with a sci-fi thriller fronted by ‘Underground’ star Jessica De Gouw.

A stylish piece of sci-fi pulp fiction made with a sense of scale that belies its indie budget, the sophomore feature from Aussie filmmaker Ben C. Lucas consolidates the promise he showed in his debut, 2010's Wasted on the Young. That film was a memorable dissection of high school horrors set in the glass mansions of Perth, Australia's mining-enriched Western capital, with a final act that was a little too dense for its own good. OtherLife likewise boasts a non-linear structure that is just explicable enough until one too many late reversals, though its puzzles could prove catnip to genre fans who thrill to fare such as FX's Legion that blurs the line between real worlds and virtual ones.

Where Wasted on the Young spotlighted the perils of online bullying, OtherLife trains its sights on the encroachment of virtual and augmented reality, as well as upon the self-publicized do-gooderism of start-ups that only really care about the bottom line. The story of a young woman (Arrow star Jessica De Gouw) who patents a revolutionary new drug only to see it co-opted by her unscrupulous business partner, this loose adaptation of Kelley Eskridge's 2002 novel Solitaire should enjoy a robust afterlife on streaming and ancillary after making the genre rounds.

Outfitted by costume designer Amelia Gebler in standard hacker kit — black boots and eyeliner, a sweater with thumb holes — Ren Amari (De Gouw) is the brains behind OtherLife, an eye-drop which gives users the chance to inhabit other, more proficient lives. To the dismay of co-founder Sam (T.J. Power, playing an older version of the creep he essayed in Wasted), Ren is still working out the kinks only five days from the product's public launch — chiefly by experimenting on herself. Snowboarding down a mountain to a chalet in the woods, Ren's virtual adventures could be straight out of Inception, with Dan Freene's crisply expansive widescreen lensing contrasting the sterile, low-ceilinged offices of Perth with the unfettered return to wonder that awaits those who plug in.

That freedom is at odds with the tech’s commercial application as envisaged by Ren's partner. One year in OtherLife is equivalent to one minute in the real world, and Sam is in talks with the Department of Corrections about the drug's potential to revolutionize the prison system. His plan to have convicts do "hard time without the time" horrifies Ren, for whom the company's stock price is of secondary importance to her research, through which she hopes to bring her brother out of a coma.

Playing with timeline to sometimes disorienting effect, Lucas and his regular editor Leanne Cole intercut monochrome fragments of a boardroom meeting in which corporate types interrogate Ren about the drug's dangers, as well as of the fateful day at the beach where her brother drowned. Plagued by guilt, she finds comfort in the arms of colleague Danny (rising Aussie star Thomas Cocquerel), and De Gouw is convincing as the boffin-as-addict for whom relationships are a distraction. When Danny takes an untested sample at her apartment and dies, she becomes a guinea pig, forced to do a year's time (in her mind) in order to avoid charges, not to mention the bad press that could sink the entire operation.

Evocatively rendered by designer Helen O'Loan as a kind of nightmare art installation from which there is no escape, the cube in which Ren wakes up is black except for a wall of neon bars, which ticks off the days until her confinement ends. Lucas and his team of writers (including veteran Gregory Widen of Highlander and Backdraft fame) engineer a way out of this narrative cul-de-sac that explodes Ren's sense — and ours — of where she is, and the film becomes a race against time as she sets out to save her brother and herself.

Lucas makes striking use of Western Australian locations, from the high-rises that hug the shoreline in one of the world's most isolated cities — with ocean on one side and desert on the other — to the densely forested hills beyond, where Ren's father (The Castle's Tiriel Mora) lives in a sleekly modernist tree house.

Freene’s liquid compositions make sharp use of the harsh Australian light, shimmering off Perth’s chrome-and-steel skyscrapers like a series of mirages, while the drone-like soundscape from Jed Palmer (The Infinite Man) cranks up the urgency as Ren goes on the lam. As with Mike Cahill’s 2014 feature I Origins, another low-budget sci-fi with big ideas, OtherLife features several close-ups of the human eye. These often dissolve into kaleidoscopes that fill the entire screen, acting as markers between past and present, real and unreal. 

Production companies: See Pictures, Cherry Road Films, WBMC
Cast: Jessica De Gouw, T.J. Power, Thomas Cocquerel, Liam Graham, Clarence Ryan, Maggie Meyer, Tiriel Mora
Director: Ben C. Lucas
Screenwriters: Kelley Eskridge, Tommaso Fiacchino, Ben C. Lucas, Lucas Howe, Gregory Widen
Producers: Tommaso Fiacchino, Jamie Hilton, Janelle Landers, Marco Mehlitz, Aidan O’Bryan, Michael Pontin
Director of photography: Dan Freene
Costume designer: Amelia Gebler
Production designer: Helen O’Loan
Editor: Leanne Cole
Composer: Jed Palmer
Casting: Gregory Apps
Venue: Sydney Film Festival
Sales: eOne

96 minutes