Shitty Movie Sundays: Virtuosity

We here at Missile Test love a big budget flop. We love it when A-list stars and up-and-comers bound for greatness show up in a film that has big ideas and tiny payoff. We love it when Hollywood pretensions and conceits come back to bite them in the ass. It’s even better when the whole package is absurd — when a film makes a viewer wonder, “what were they thinking?”

Virtuosity is one of Hollywood’s earlier attempts to parse the Information Age, and its effects on the wider world. Released in 1995, its assumptions about the future can be laughable at times. What doomed this movie in 1995 was that its vision was somewhat laughable back then, as well.

Denzel Washington stars as Parker Barnes, a former cop serving a long prison sentence for murdering the guy who murdered his family. It’s contrived, but perfect for a shitty sci-fi/action flick.

Barnes has been recruited into a program that is testing virtual reality training for law enforcement, in exchange for a little time off of his sentence. Why this program is using convicts as, basically, game testers is never explained, other than that Barnes needed this murderous revenge backstory, AND he needed to be a program tester, so there it is. I suspect screenwriter Eric Bernt received his instructions from the producers, and so was forced to jam a square peg into a round hole.

This VR environment is rather clever, as some of the various NPCs are fledgling AI programs. One of the virtual baddies is SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe), the ‘6.7’ being a version number.

SID is a programmed supercriminal. He has been given aspects of the most notorious killers in history, from Charles Manson, to John Wayne Gacy, to the guy who killed Barnes’ family. The end result for viewers is the Joker. I’m not exaggerating. SID has a twisted Virtuosity movie postersense of humor, one resulting in mass casualties, a yen for the spotlight, and an affinity for green and purple zoot suits. It’s not a good sign for an action flick when the bad guy is an R-rated version of Cesar Romero. It’s good for us shitty movie fans, though!

Crowe stole the show from Washington, and not in a good way. I find it kind of amazing that his performance in this movie wasn’t a black mark that derailed his career. It’s that bad, and while it’s a thrilling ride at first, by the end of the movie I can’t recall ever having rooted so hard for the good guy.

So, how does a bad guy stuck in a computer program become a threat? Also at the research facility where the VR testing is happening, is a nanotech lab, where androids made out of nanobots can be manufactured, and the AI programs from across the hallway installed. Some plot machinations occur, and SID finds himself with an android body and free reign out here in the real world.

As silly as SID is, there is a childhood glee to the chaos he causes that works very well. This program can’t be more than a few years old in this film’s mythos, so he’s basically a toddler with mild superpowers and a mass murderer’s disposition. Crowe does well in conveying the wonder SID feels at being released into this new playground. It’s all the other stuff that makes one laugh.

Of course, now that SID is out in the real world, only one man can stop him, and it’s Barnes. It’s such a cliché that only one person can save the day, like there aren’t a barrel full of badasses to choose from in this country who aren’t in prison, but, again, this is a shitty movie. This is the kind of antihero shit we eat up.

The icing on this shit cake has to be the CGI. Director Brett Leonard was no stranger to CGI and fake virtual reality constructs, having helmed The Lawnmower Man a few years before. This film had half the budget of Jurassic Park, which is the CGI bellwether of the era, but the CGI is horrible. I’ve seen cut scenes for games on the first PlayStation that had better graphics. From SID’s virtual temper tantrums all the way down to fake user interfaces, the CGI is bottom-feeding crap. There is no excuse for a proper Hollywood flick going so cheap, and so dumb. Their loss, as is often the case in shitty movies, is the viewer’s gain. It’s yet another aspect of this film worth laughing at.

If it wasn’t for Crowe, Virtuosity wouldn’t be worth watching at all. He’s this film’s Arch Hall, Jr., its William Shatner, its Nicolas Cage. Crowe took ridiculous material and raised it to sublime heights with his overacting. In a good movie, he would be reviled. In our world, he is celebrated.

Virtuosity stinks, and it never escapes the iron grips of its cliché, but it never stops moving forward. It slots well into the top half of the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, displacing Tango & Cash at #60. Check it out.

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