Humanity’s been fascinated with extending its life since about the time it realized its mortality. Stories run rampant of the relics like the Fountain of Youth or the Holy Grail, believed to possess restorative powers strong enough to put a stopper on death. Then there’s Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein which not only uses the horror of death to motivate her lead, Doctor Victor Frankenstein, but itself was inspired by recent advancements in the medical community. Even now, researchers at Yale University found a means of restoring some brain function to dead pigs hours after they were killed at a slaughterhouse. This goes beyond mere cursory chemical restoration of the dermal layer which the beauty industry pushes each day, this is the precipice from which there may be no turning back. In a way, this is a question which the Keanu Reeves-led futuristic drama Replicas attempts to present to its audience as it places specific, personal stakes against a grander theme of medical ethics. Unfortunately, when it turns away from the striking questions, it pivots into something far more generic.
Neuroscientist William Foster (Keanu Reeves) works for bio-medical company BioNyne where he attempts the seemingly impossible: to map the human mind and transfer it to a robotic body. Despite a latest experiment showing incredible promise, after eight-months of failure, Will is given an ultimatum: make it work or find a new job. Unfortunately, Will finds the motivation he needs to solve his problem when a horrible accident takes the lives of his entire family. In Will’s desperation to restore equilibrium to his life, he never stops to think about whether he should, or, worse, what BioNyne wants with his revolutionary technology. But with his family’s lives on the line, Will will defy Heaven and destroy Hell if it means restoring what he lost.
What would you do if you lost your family in a terrible accident and the technology to bring them back was at your fingertips? This question is simple, yet imposing, as the answer is a cascade of possibilities. When Replicas stays focused on this aspect, rejecting the obvious for drama, there’s incredible potential for a quieter, less violent exploration of the question which writer/director Leigh Whannell asked in 2018’s Upgrade. However, when it pushes into something nefariously grand, Replica loses what makes it interesting. Put simply, Chad St. John’s (Peppermint) script developed from Stephen Hamel’s story (Siberia) works best when it stays focused on the transhumanist elements (a belief in creating human-technological harmonization) and the moral implications which spring forth. This is where the natural drama emanates from and where the richer aspects of Replicas grab hold of the audience. Keanu imbues William with a clear focus and internal drive, one which truly takes hold upon the film’s inciting incident and never leaves him from that moment on. It cushions the audience against the dangerous risks he takes and keeps the incredibly terrifying choices from going into a horror realm, which is exactly what audiences expect. The tagline on the home release is “Some Humans Are Unstoppable” and the official synopsis teases “fateful consequences.” When Replicas hews toward drama, there’s a more satisfying story for audiences to engage with and ponder. Like the aforementioned question, Replicas wants the audience to ponder what they would do in Will’s situation. Even more so, it wants the audience to wonder if the concept of transhumanism is better as an effusive ethical question than as an actuality. By zeroing in on a man who’s lost his wife and three children, the stakes are deeply personal and carry weight, especially as the script smartly forces Will to confront his choices over and over and over. Here, Replicas becomes fascinating. Unfortunately, this is too brief a portion to advocate for it as a whole.
And here’s the thing, science-fiction has proven to be strong for Keanu and for long-time fans of the actor, and it’s not hard to notice a few things which remind of other works. The headgear which Will uses to map out the cerebral cortex in his work is incredibly reminiscent of tech displayed in his 1995 more cultish sci-fi actioner Johnny Mnemonic. St. John and Hamel’s script teases the possibility that all the audience sees may just be a simulation, somewhat reminiscent of the ending of 1997’s The Devil’s Adovcate. Of, course, how can one not immediately notice that the existential question of life post-natural born body feels very Wachowskian. This is so much Keanu’s area and when the script calls for it, you feel every bit the range of Will’s pathos, even when setting about questionable acts. He is, however, a desperate man and, he believes, these are desperate times. But what does any of this matter if the whole of Replicas can’t decide what type of film it wants to be. Art of all kinds raises questions and, sometimes, doesn’t answer them. The biggest fault in Replicas is when it provides answers, shifting the focus from a specific, narrow family and widening it to the global implications. The stakes shift so greatly that when the credits roll, it’s hard not to wonder what’s just happened.
Impressively, the special features included are treated with such great care that they improve upon the film experience extensively. The deleted scenes run just shy of 9 minutes and though you can’t select which ones you want to see, the scenes do offer a wide range of either extended sequences, unfinished digital previsualization, or altogether cut scenes. There’s one scene involving Thomas Middleditch’s Ed Whittle which, had it been left in the film, would’ve created a more thrilling undercurrent through every scene related to it. But that’s the beauty of seeing what doesn’t make it into the finished product, you get to peek behind the scenes and get a sense of what the creators were thinking. Digging in deeper, there’s “Imprint Complete: The Making of Replicas,” a nearly 26 -minute featurette in which Keanu, Hamel, director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, as well as members of the central cast and crew, offer their insight into the process of developing, crafting, constructing, and performing in the film. In combination, the deleted scenes and the featurette create a sense that everything involved in constructing Replicas was done so with incredible care. This makes it all the more disappointing that Replicas is too determined to be all things – action, thriller, drama – that it loses sight of what really matters: the question it poses.
Replicas is the exact film you’d expect fans of The Matrix, Elysium, or Lucy to dig into. The difference is that these films organically involve action so that the stretches of imagination never reach a breaking point. For Replicas, the tension is only real when waiting to find out if Will’s work to save his family results in a miracle or an abomination. That ticking clock as the truth bears down on Will, waiting to see whether it’s his determination to keep the death of his family a secret or that he’s trying to bring them back, is the aspect that puts audiences on the edge of their seat and keeps them watching as the script never dumbs itself down, making Will do the right thing after doing so much wrong, locking you in. Yet, for all of that, by running away from the question of the ethics, of whether we can equals we should, Replicas shies away from the bold and into the expected.
Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Bonus Features
- Audio commentary with director Jeffery Nachmanoff and executive producer James Dodson.
- “Imprint Complete: The Making of Replicas” Featurette.
- Deleted Scenes.
Available on Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD, and digital now.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.