Never fully answers the questions it raises, but that almost seems to be the point.
In these days of home video, Replicas is an anomaly: a modestly budgeted science fiction film that premiered theatrically instead of streaming on Netflix or Amazon Prime. It calls to mind an earlier era, when interesting genre films could pop up in local cinemas without the fanfare of an action-packed summer blockbuster but with just enough star power and/or intriguing ideas to generate interest. Replicas is hardly the apex of cerebral cinema, and it doesn’t fully explore its interesting premise, but even the attempt it laudable, especially when wrapped up in an engaging emotional package.
Keannu Reeves plays Will Foster, a scientist at a private research facility in Puerto Rico, who is trying to transfer human consciousness into robotic bodies. The first attempt we see is a spectacular failure, when the mind of a dead military man awakens in its metallic shell and promptly attempts to destroy itself. Things get worse for Foster when, attempting to make up for neglecting his family for work, he takes them on vacation, only to drive off a road, killing all of them. Conveniently enough, Foster’s friend and colleague, Ed (Thomas Middleditch), can obtain cloning supplies from their facility, which create new bodies into which Foster can implant the personalities of his wife and children. Will’s plan begins to go awry when the replicas begin to realize they are not the originals, then goes off the rails when his boss, Jones (John Ortiz), reveals that the company’s motives are far from altruistic.
Replicas works rather like an episode of the original 1960s version of The Outer Limits, in which the science and technology were assumed to exist in order to play out a “what if” scenario that focused on the human costs. In this case, the setup betrays more than a whiff of contrivance: everything is perfectly in place for Foster to revive his family in secret, but we forgive the unlikely circumstances, because they lead in interesting directions. In this case, the initial focus is on the ethics and the logistics of the situation, as the film invests us in seeing Foster succeed even as it raises nagging doubts about whether what he is doing is right.
Unlike cautionary science fiction of yesteryear, Replicas is not out to warn us that Will is meddling in God’s Domain; rather, it focuses on human costs. The hurdles Will must overcome are not so much theoretical or metaphysical as practical. Sure, Ed can supply cloning tubes – but not enough for everybody, forcing Will to make a horrendous decision about which family member not to revive. Yes, Will can erase the memories of the fatal accident and the missing child, but what happens if his wife – who doubts the morality of his work – finds out that his work has resurrected her? And even if Will can complete the cloning process on the sly, how can he explain the extended absence of his children from school and of his wife from work? (Social media comes to the rescue here: when people regularly interact via text, email, and instant messaging, it’s not too hard to hard to maintain the illusion that his family is alive.)
In spite of Will’s best efforts, reality has a nagging way of intruding. Foster revives his family on a weekend, with Christmas vacation to follow, temporarily avoiding their return to work and school, when they will learn their friends have been missing them for weeks; however, even this delay is not totally successful, as his wife, Mona (Alice Eve), is troubled that she cannot recall scheduling time off from work for the upcoming holiday. Minute indications of the absent child eventually lead to dawning awareness that something is wrong, setting the stage for a confrontation between Mona and Will that never fully materializes, because the film veers off in another direction.
The most tantalizingly unresolved issue of Replicas is inherent in its very title. The usual conceit of science fiction stories dealing with transferring consciousness (e.g., 2014’s Transcendence) is to kill off the “donor” so that we can imagine that his or her soul/mind/psyche/spirit has been transferred into its new host body, whether electronic or organic. Of course, what’s really happening is that memories are being loaded onto a new neural network; what emerges is simply a copy, and there’s no reason for the original to be dead, except so that we can pretend the copy is the original reborn. Replicas specifically acknowledges this: Will has not resurrected his family; he has created duplicates – literally, replicas. Does this distinction matter to him or to them? Is Will merely creating a simulacrum of familial bliss, like the hapless protagonist at the end of Solaris (1971)? Even if his new wife and children have the same DNA and (most of) the memories of the originals, are they same, or are they something slightly different – something that may not want to play their assigned role in assuaging Will’s guilt about the car accident?
Replicas never answers these questions, but that almost seems to be the point. In perhaps a deliberate bit of irony, Mona, having discovered the truth, insists, “We’ll talk later,” but the conversation never comes, because it turns out that Jones has other plans, and in typical cinema fashion, they are of an extremely nefarious nature: now that Will has proven the transfer process works, Jones wants the clones terminated and work to resume on implanting human consciousness in an electronic brain (imagine the mind of the world’s greatest pilot implanted in hundreds of unmanned military drones, Jones enthuses).
This leads to some chase-scenes as Will and his family attempt to evade Jones and his goon squad. As the thriller elements takes over, any exploration of the underlying ideas gets tossed out the window, which is frustrating – and yet, in a weird way, it almost works; in fact, it seems like a deliberate narrative ploy. Faced with a life-or-death situation, the fine points of metaphysics and medical ethics take a back seat to survival. The film neatly triggers our visceral instinct to protect the vulnerable from predators; even though we have been questioning Will’s actions throughout, expecting them to lead to disaster, we’re suddenly all on board with his efforts to protect the replicas from Jones. There’s even a satisfying science fiction variation on “Chekhov’s Gun” – which in this case might be called Chekhov’s Robot, which sees Will finally imbuing a mechanical man with consciousness, in a way that tilts the tables in his favor.
One suspects some last-minute tampering, as the movie had seemed to be heading in another direction. (The replica Mona at one point is seen feeling unexpectedly fatigued while jogging, suggesting that the cloning process has not been completely successful, but nothing comes of this.) Yet Replicas ultimately makes us root for the outcome it reaches (except for the too-happy final fade out, which reminds us of the unanswered questions we were willing to overlook during the fight for survival.)
Whatever its frustrations, Replicas remains enjoyable throughout, mostly because Reeves sells his role and sells us on his mission. Though once upon a time dismissed by critics who assumed that Reeves simply was the character he played in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the actor has matured, learning to use his patented zen-like placidity to great effect on the cinema screen. Film acting need not be defined by spewing overt emotion across the screen. In a medium that uses closeups and reactions shots, Reeves has learned to convey everything he needs with subtle changes of expression, like ripples that reveal deeper turbulence beneath the surface. In one stand out sequence, Will is figuratively and literally erasing the memory of a dead child (throwing away toys, wiping away drawings); there’s no dialogue and no histrionics, but you can see that, inside, what he is doing is killing a piece of his soul. People who prefer blubbering tears may call that performance wooden, but this subtle approach achieves a profound emotional resonance that makes it possible to overlook Replicas‘ thematic shortcomings.
Replicas never fully answers the questions it raises, but that almost seems to be the point: when physical survival is at stake, there’s no time for metaphysical philosophizing.
Replicas (Copyright 2017, Di Bonaventura Pictures; US Release Date: January 11, 2019, Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures). PG-13. 107 mins. Directed by Jeffrey Machmanoff. Screenplay by Chad St. John, story by Stephen Hamel. Cast: Keannu Reeves, Alice Eve, Emily Alyn Lind, Thomas Middleditch, John Ortiz.