I wish I could give five stars to Jay Craven's Wetware just for being a major step outside the director's wheelhouse and one of the most ambitious locally made films I've seen. Working from a 2002 science-fiction novel by former Vermonter Craig Nova, the Barnet-based filmmaker brings us a story far removed from the Howard Frank Mosher adaptations with which he made his name.
Instead of the Northeast Kingdom, Wetware takes place in a violet-tinged dystopian urbanscape where dilapidated buildings are accented with neon bars. (It's actually Nantucket, Burlington and Brattleboro.) Instead of salty old mountain folk and wide-eyed youngsters, the characters are ice-blooded executives and tech wizards. This is not the Craven you thought you knew.
Wetware will tour the state this summer, starting this Friday with a weeklong engagement at Montpelier's Savoy Theater. Locals should absolutely check it out.
As a critic, though, I'm obliged to view Wetware not purely as a local film but in the context of all the high-concept, low-budget movies about unsettling futures that crowd my Netflix list. How does it rank in that field? A bit muddled, with some ultra-cool visuals that don't quite offset a protagonist problem.
The film has a genuinely unsettling premise: The future of labor involves genetically engineering people into android-like drones who perform shit jobs without complaint. Called "Mungos," these brain-wiped workers are derided as second-class citizens, while the chair (Jerry O'Connell) of the capital group that profits from them thrives. Now, though, he's facing a worldwide financial crisis if he can't push out a new product: Mungo supersoldiers.
Everything rests on the shoulders of lonely tech genius Hal Briggs (Cameron Scoggins), who's less interested in profits than in turning the female supersoldier prototype (Morgan Wolk) into his love interest. "You coded her to fall in love with you?" asks his incredulous manager (Nicole Shalhoub), who will soon be revealed to have a sinister agenda of her own.
Wetware covers much of the same "What does it mean to be human?" ground that Blade Runner did in 1982. The atmosphere is similarly noirish, and Mungos are even referred to as "skin jobs" at one point. The film also raises questions about what it means to love; if Briggs has "coded" Kay to love him, is their chemistry real?
These questions lack a certain dramatic urgency, though, largely because of problems with Briggs' character on both scripting and acting levels. While Wolk gives her blankness a hauntingly forlorn quality, Scoggins' Briggs comes across as callow and underwritten. His hologram companion, Clock (Aurélia Thiérrée), is one of the film's most intriguing story elements and biggest effects triumphs. Yet their relationship never deepens enough to draw us into Briggs' private world.
Ultimately, the many compelling plot strands in Wetware don't quite cohere. Yet audiences should enjoy being immersed in a film that is slow, moody, retro-futuristic (characters don bubble-like helmets to experience virtual reality) and sometimes deliciously trippy. Though they're tenuously linked to the plot, the eerie, surreal animation sequences by Evan Mann and John Douglas may be worth the price of admission.
Will you get to see local icon Rusty DeWees as a Mungo bent on murder and local food-scene star Ariel Zevon as an angry cop in this movie? You will — just two more reasons to catch Wetware on tour. The past 30-plus years have brought us so many dystopian epics and cyberpunk thrillers that new entries in those genres have a high bar to clear. But it's exciting to see a local effort.