Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: August 4, 1995
Directed by: Brett Leonard
Genre: Action / Crime / Sci-Fi
One of the tropes of the science fiction genre is that of the dystopian future where computers and virtual reality technology slowly start to displace the human experience. In quite a few of these films, the primary antagonist is the creator of the technology, who either doesn’t see the damage he can do to society by taking the tech a step too far, or doesn’t care. In “Virtuosity,” the tech itself is the primary villain, thrusting itself onto the world in a gleefully murderous spree that seems impossible to stop at times.
The tech in question is called SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe), or simply SID for short. It starts out innocent enough, since the virtual reality program was developed to help create hostage and other high stakes situations for police officers to learn from. SID has the profiles of over 200 criminal minds in its memory, which makes it dangerous if unleashed onto the world. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens. Through a serious of incredible events, SID becomes real and begins an epic crime spree.
As this is all happening, disgraced police officer Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) languishes in a prison cell. He was convicted of murdering a terrorist named Matthew Grimes (Christopher Murray), who had killed his wife and child years before. It turns out that one of the criminal minds imprinted in SID’s memory is that of Grimes, so the police force, which can’t contain SID’s spree, calls on Barnes to help. They strike a deal with him: if he manages to stop SID, he will be pardoned of his crime and be a free man.
Barnes takes them up on his offer, but more for personal redemption than for his freedom. He accidentally shot others in his attempt to avenge his family, and he still feels guilty about it. He teams up with criminal psychologist Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch), who knows quite a bit about how serial killers like the ones imprinted in SID’s mind operate. Between her knowledge of psychopaths and Barnes’ instincts as a cop, they manage to find SID on several occasions, but he manages to escape each time. It’s a frustrating chase as the body count rises and the residents of the city start to panic, all while SID regenerates and improves his own programming, making him stronger, smarter and more dangerous by the minute.
Before “Virtuosity,” director Brett Leonard was best known for his 1992 cult classic “The Lawnmower Man,” which also had a story rooted in the world of virtual reality. The difference is that in “The Lawnmower Man,” the virtual reality entity had a human body, which it would later shed in order to become completely virtual in an effort to infect all the world’s computers, essentially taking over the planet. In “Virtuosity,” the opposite is true – SID would like nothing more than to get out of the virtual world and infect the real world. It is almost as if Leonard asked screenwriter Eric Bernt to explore the other side of the coin, with better results. “Virtuosity” is a more exciting, coherent ride, and with a much bigger budget and more star power to boot.
The bigger budget is necessary because the film has quite a few sequences that are supposed to look just like a video game. This requires a lot of computer-generated special effects in post-production, which cost quite a bit of money. In 1995, when the film was made, those effects cost even more, because the technology used to achieve them was still being developed. Considering the fact that the technology used to create these sequences was still so green, it looks very visually pleasing. Add to that some very well-staged action scenes, and the result is an occasional thrill ride of a film. Even the scientific speak and psychobabble don’t take away from the more heart-racing parts of the film. In fact, the video game-like action scenes and talking scenes are spliced together quite well by Leonard, showing his growth as a filmmaker since “The Lawnmower Man.”
Even with great technology and action, the real reasons to see the film are stars Washington and Crowe. In 1995, Washington was already an established movie star who had no equal in the film gravitas department. Even with Washington as the bankable star, Crowe more than holds his own at a time when most people outside of Australia still didn’t know who he was. Although he had yet to strap on his “Gladiator” armor or win an Oscar, he still had star presence on the screen. Watching him take over “Virtuosity” is like watching a child go from crawling to walking, and it is a joy to see. For this reason alone, the film is worth putting into any good sci-fi movie collection.
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