“Fantasy and reality are chemically identical”
Ben C. Lucas’ 2017 Australian sci-fi thriller film OtherLife is loosely based on Kelley Eskridge’s 2002 novel Solitaire. Deeply influenced by The Matrix (1999) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), the film offers a thrilling mind-bending experience.
Ren Amari (Jessica De Gouw) is a high-tech researcher obsessed with developing a form of biological virtual reality, through coded dreams, in order to reawaken her brother, who has been on life support ever since his surfing accident. When Sam (T. J. Power), her business partner, plans to license it for virtual solitary confinement, Ren has to fight for what is moral. With treacherous alliances and greed consuming the people closest to her, Ren ends up becoming the experiment’s unplanned test subject.
The film does an excellent job maintaining tension and suspense throughout. The world we enter is stripped of colours, scratching familiarity and comfort from the surface of everything that we see. It presents shaky camera shots that reinstate the sense of peril and confusion bleeding from the characters’ eyes. What’s more, there is the omniprsent clock, which is relentlessly shown counting down to OtherLife’s launch.
With the initial events gently tugging us into Ren’s unsettling world, she has the arduous task of making the storyline engaging. Her intensity and drive are reminiscent of the unblinking mania of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and CEO of the now-defunct blood-testing startup Theranos. Even though the character’s obstinate nature seems grating at first, our perception of her qualities quickly shifts, as we watch her battle the fickle morality of a world of her own creation.
The film’s underlying discomfort exists on many planes, and is eerily similar to what many people have experienced during the recent lockdown. Static-like sounds frazzle as much as the thwartingly bleak shades of grey, which are accompanied by malicious, morbid faces. The character’s isolation leads to an inundation of crawling memories and a hoarse voice sowing seeds of insanity in Ren’s own head. We are stuffed into a metal container with her, and this is where the film’s brilliant manipulation over our emotions begins.
Despair swings to elation, which flings back to horror, and then shoots towards relief again, keeping us strapped into an inner rollercoaster that wedges our stomachs in our throats. Just as we start to think that we’ve found stable ground, it quivers again, shoving us down into a scaling ditch.
At some point we lose track of where reality ends and dreams begin, as hollow sounds pound on our eardrums. This is where the film’s similarity to The Matrix is unearthed. The body is left behind, while the mind is propelled to another existence. As Ren has to crawl through the grim passages of her consciousness, the film starts to resemble Inception, with its jeering control over our perception of materiality. External tension is matched by equally tense relationships, the validity and honesty of which often comes into question.
The unexpected twist that comes at the end is bittersweet. Despite the surface-level solace, somewhere lies the heartbreaking realisation that human behaviour cannot be programmed. Making an active choice is the ultimate sign of vitality, and it’s the shift from the metaphysical to the emotional world that shows the true strength of the mind.
All in all, the film is less abstract than Inception and far less philosophical than The Matrix, but it does allow the viewer more freedom to frolic about while trying to unravel the presented mystery of authenticity than both films combined.