Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: For The A.V. Club’s Artificial Intelligence Week, we’re focusing on sentient computers and computer programs, a.k.a. our future overlords.
Were the 1990s—the age of the multimedia CD-ROM, the Plunkett + Kuhr Wired layout, the colorful translucent plastic gadget—the last great decade for pop futurism? We’re not talking here about action-packed, military-industrial futures, which have remained largely unchanged since Aliens, but the kind of futures filmmakers imagine when they tell stories that are overtly about the possibilities of future tech. Nowadays, those futures tend to be more or less familiar, artfully conservative, and populated by people who seem just like the people of today; these are your Hers, your Interstellars, your Ex Machinas. In the ’90s, though, filmmakers tended to imagine the near future as being aesthetically and culturally alien—a garish MTV, collarless-everything, video-wall world, where it’s 1999 and everyone is recording or wiping or watching each other’s memories.
Virtuosity, a largely forgotten sci-fi thriller directed by Brett Leonard (The Lawnmower Man, Hideaway), is set in one of those futures. Though it isn’t as accomplished as Strange Days or even the Japanese cut of Johnny Mnemonic (both also released in 1995), it’s still a treat to look at, thanks to its imaginative use of primitive CGI and to the gonzo imagery cooked up by production designer Nilo Rodis.
The plot is pure virtual-reality-headset pulp: SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe, in one of his first American roles), a criminal AI designed to train police officers, grows himself a robot body and escapes into the real world; the only person who can stop him is, of course, an imprisoned ex-cop (Denzel Washington). There’s a lot of grandstanding about mass media, but if there’s a real satirical target in the movie, it’s games. SID, who’s spent his entire existence as the end boss in a virtual reality program—complete with clipping issues, texture glitches, and annoyingly looped NPC dialogue—treats Los Angeles as though he’s ripping through an open-world game in God mode, mowing down pedestrians and regenerating limbs as tendrils of blue goop.
Part of the appeal here—at least aesthetically—is that the near-future reality SID escapes into seems every bit as artificial and stylized as the one for which he was created. Virtuosity’s idea of a futuristic prison is a three-story German Expressionist wall of backlit silhouettes; its image of a supercomputer is a warehouse dominated by a giant rear-projection TV. Throw in Crowe’s relentless scenery chewing and a dependable ’90s “that guy” cast (including Williams Fichtner and Forsythe), and what you’ve got is something that isn’t sophisticated, but is a lot of fun.
Availability: Virtuosity is available on DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library. A Blu-Ray release is due in July.