Neither critics nor audiences seem to like this one much, but everyone’s game to give it a try because Keanu Reeves is in it. Should you?
Replicas is a sci-fi film, not unlike Altered Carbon in terms of the science, but very much different in terms of the fiction. In the future, a dying person’s “self” (the content of their minds) can be uploaded to a server, and then downloaded into another body. Keanu plays William Foster, a brilliant scientist trying to make that concept workable at a secret facility in Puerto Rico. The upload and the download both go well, but the robotic bodies always seem to reject the process, sometimes even destroying themselves in the process. He’s been working on this for a while, but if his breakthrough doesn’t come soon, they may lose their funding. Even so, William opts to take his family on vacation – after all, he has asked wife Mona (Alice Eve) and their three kids to uproot for him, but he hasn’t been around much. So of course he accidentally kills them all in a terrible traffic accident that very night. In a grief-crazed panic, he calls fellow researcher Ed (Thomas Middleditch), and forces him to quickly upload all 4 of the recently deceased. William knows that the download into robot bodies isn’t viable, so he guilts Ed into using his own area of research to help: human cloning. And as if having a whole family of secret clones isn’t difficult enough, they have to steal very expensive lab equipment to do the job, and then lie about their success to their boss.
This premise is loaded with potential, and the film contains lots of threads that justify anyone choosing this material. So why don’t we like it?
In part, something researchers call “uncanny valley” which basically posits that as robots become more human-like, we go from admiration to revulsion. Anything that we know is unreal, but seems real, makes us feel a bit uneasy. And now William’s living in a whole house of them – very good copies of his family, but copies nonetheless, and not entirely perfect either. As humans, we have a natural revulsion to this. 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had ultra-realistic human animation, and suffered defeat at the box office. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. made some serious money, but the movie creeped out both audiences and critics, some of whom have since revised their originally ambivalent reviews. But still: this stuff makes us uncomfortable, and usually for good reason.
The uncanny valley isn’t Replicas’ only problem though. Ultimately, its own ambition topples it. The first half sometimes feels a bit silly, and William’s choices are consistently problematic. Of course we’d all like just a little more time with our lost loved ones, but William takes it to extremes, and drags his buddy into the mess with him, which is a lot to ask of a coworker who only ever consented to looking after a fish.
The uneasiness generated by a family that now consists mainly of the undead (not zombies, but kinda definitely zombies) would do better in a horror film, but instead director Jeffrey Nachmanoff commits to a family drama but can’t quite make it work. And there was plenty to work with: grief, survivor’s guilt, basic human existential questions of identity of self – but instead Nachmanoff gets bogged down explaining imaginary science as if this was a term paper and not a piece of entertainment. Keanu manages to stay serious even whilst wearing the silliest hat of the future AND waving his hands in the air like he just don’t care, but the script goes from suspicious to limp and I’m pretty sure the director was in the can for the entire back 9. Replicas does not work well as a movie, but it does star the internet’s boyfriend, and for his presence alone, I bet people will continue to watch.