Studio release slates are crowded with remakes and adaptations, only delivering a small handful of original science fiction films a year. The independent scene, however, has remained prolific. Streaming platforms burst with low-budget genre films that don’t actually look all that low-budget thanks to the relative affordability of visual effects and other digital post-production tools. Most of these movies are, admittedly, pretty forgettable, but there’s often novelty in making the most out of a little, and seeing how well a filmmaker can scale their story to the resources at hand. Zone 414 is such a case, a $5 million sci-fi noir that sets reasonable goals and meets them in a workmanlike fashion, neither disappointing nor particularly impressive.
This Place is a Prison and These People Aren’t Your Friends
Private investigator David Carmichael (Guy Pearce, one of our most affordable actors) is hired by eccentric billionaire Marlon Veidt (Travis Fimmel of Raised by Wolves in a pound of prosthetic makeup for some reason) to retrieve his runaway daughter Melissa. She is hiding somewhere in Zone 414, an experimental urban district populated by Veidt’s race of lifelike androids and the super-rich customers who pay for the pleasure of their company. David is assigned a guide to help him navigate the Zone’s seedy underbelly, Jane (Italian actress Matilda Lutz), Zeidt’s most advanced synthetic being who befriended Melissa before her disappearance. Together, David and Jane follow Melissa’s trail to deeper and darker places in the Zone haunted by ever-creepier rich weirdos. The mystery plot is only halfway interesting, but there’s enough going on thematically to hold interest.
Movies about humanoid machines and artificial intelligence inevitably draw comparisons to Blade Runner, and those comparisons are rarely favorable. Zone 414 isn’t shy about referencing the Ridley Scott classic in the design of its neon- and rain-soaked future metropolis, but it’s also a modest enough production that the effort comes across as more cute than embarrassing. Director Andrew Baird and team evoke this familiar atmosphere with a small fraction of the budget using a handful of cheap but effective tricks. Exterior shots are flooded with steam and mist that catch the pink and blue lights of the city and obscure how unremarkable Zone 414’s streets and alleys really are, (but not so much that I’d didn’t notice). I couldn’t tell you why occasionally passing a spotlight across the picture windows of Jane’s loft apartment makes it feel more futuristic, but it does. New technology is mashed up with a variety of retro tech — Victrola turntables, cassette camcorders — but the fashion sense is off-kilter enough to avoid my pet peeve of using the past to completely avoid guessing at the future.
Happily, Zone 414 avoids being a total retread by focusing on a different, if overlapping set of themes from Blade Runner. Zone 414 doesn’t meander too long in questions of the nature of life or consciousness, and is much more concerned with class struggle. Both films are about the tragedy of manufacturing a caste of disposable workers, but Zone 414 makes that its centerpiece. The villain of the film is the wealthy’s power over the poor, how wealth enables abuse and shields predators from consequences. It is not the most subtle or graceful film in its genre to approach this theme, but it says its piece in some interesting ways.
Some of Them Want to Abuse You
While Guy Pearce is ostensibly the lead of the film, his character is a store-bought archetype, a grizzled detective with a tragic past and is barely worth talking about. On the other side of the spectrum, Travis Fimmel’s performance as the ghoulish billionaire Marlon Veidt is so broadly affected that it becomes distracting. Both actors have decided to give their characters some kind of accent, and while I can tell Pearce is aiming at New York and landing halfway to Boston, Fimmel is performing what I can only describe as a “villain accent.” The two are playing such opposite extremes that amplifying either of them even a hair would make their scenes together into comedy sketches.
The real star of the show is Matilda Lutz as Jane, who gets about equal screen time with Pearce and does a lot more with it. Her performance isn’t so much a standout as it is a service to an interesting character. Jane is Marlon Veidt’s “masterpiece,” a synthetic who is deeply depressed, more human than she can handle. Royale (Olwen Fouéré, Mandy), who manages the Zone’s synthetics, claims Jane is defective, but really she’s just responding appropriately to life as a slave. Her misery is marketed as a feature, not a bug. “Powerful men,” she’s told, “are very attracted to those who suffer.”
Jane is trapped in the Zone, required to tend to the whims of however many guests have paid the Veidt Corporation for her time each day. When she begins to receive threatening messages from a stranger, she reports it to one of her handlers who assures her that if she’s being threatened, it’s only because someone has paid top dollar for the right to threaten her. Customers aren’t allowed to kill synthetics, but if one fantasizes about terrifying her, then it’s her job to be terrified. Marlon encourages Jane’s human tendencies, furnishing her with a loft apartment where she can “forget she’s a machine,” but these creature comforts are only there to make her a better product. She lives with the knowledge that she can never escape and that her labor belongs to the company.
Jane takes every inch of agency that she can win. When David asks her for help searching for Melissa, Jane realizes that he is not empowered to give her orders and quickly turns his request into a negotiation. She knows she’s alive, and she’s going to behave that way. Zone 414 also avoids objectifying Jane for the audience — while it’s clear that sex is a major component of the work Jane is compelled to perform, we don’t see any. This spares the audience the discomfort of being asked to participate in her abuse, particularly with a leering eye. Jane doesn’t only feel like the lead of Zone 414 because Guy Pearce is sleepwalking — the movie is plainly more interested in her point of view than that of any other character.
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Sing Along with the Common People
Melissa Veidt, our missing person, is resentful of her family’s fabulous wealth and runs away to Zone 414 to hide from her guilt and shame over how their fortune was made. Like Freder in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Melissa embeds herself in her father’s labor force, though in her case this is a poorly considered act of protest. Posing as a synthetic allows Melissa to bury her feelings, but her class tourism doesn’t end up helping anyone, least of all herself. She is not the hero of this story, she’s just another victim, a background character in someone else’s narrative.
But Melissa isn’t the only person play-acting a fantasy of a harder life in Zone 414. In fact, that’s part of the package Veidt is selling. The Zone has “all the grime and none of the crime” of a real, lived-in city, a far cry from the trappings of luxury to which the guests are accustomed. Zone 414 is a theme park where the super-rich pay £1 million to visit the poor side of town secure in the knowledge that not only can the poor not hurt them, they have to obey. Customers can pay an additional £20 million to purchase a synthetic of their own to bring home with them, but they have to leave two key parts of the fantasy behind — the illusion of danger, and the promise that what they do with the synthetics will be kept secret. For some customers, this would defeat the purpose. As Royale puts it, “I don’t get paid to give these sickos what they want. I get paid to keep the world from finding out what these sickos want.
That’s really what Zone 414 — the movie and the place — is about. Veidt and his clientele have the power to do whatever they want, and what they want is to know they can do whatever they want. Power is the thrill. This doesn’t only refer to the organics’ hold over the synthetic, but the hierarchy of the super-wealthy over the wealthy and the wealthy over the working class. Marlon raises David’s fee to find Melissa from £1 million to £2 million on a whim, because he can, but as Marlon’s brother Joseph (Jonathan Aris, The End of the F***ing World) is quick to remind him, £2 million is only enough to make David rich, not wealthy. Losing this power is also Marlon’s only fear. “There is no crime in the Zone,” says Marlon, immediately after being informed of one. The illusion that his wealth makes him “the God of Power” must be maintained, or else he will become just another rich guy to his customers.
In ruminating on Zone 414’s themes, it’s very possible that I’ve oversold the film itself. As a conversation piece, it’s pretty stimulating; as a movie, it’s entirely average. But the realm of science fiction has always been a great venue for conversation pieces. That’s what the genre is for, after all — short jaunts outside our world to help us reflect back on it. Zone 414 isn’t really saying anything new, but it does say it in a breezy and digestible 98 minutes. This is about as faint as praise gets, I know, but it’s also honest. I would not recommend rushing out to theaters to see it (particularly during a pandemic). Zone 414 would, however, make for a decent weekend afternoon streaming pull, especially if you’ve got someone around to unpack it with.