The rain-soaked neon and chrome of Zone 414, the sci-fi feature debut for director Andrew Baird, is nothing new. Here is a vision of the not-so-distant future that has swirled around the cultural imagination since Blade Runner.
That film set out a fundamental aesthetic that defined a genre. Forty years out from release, its influence persists on television, in the pages of comic books, the cells of Japanese anime, in Blade Runner’s own recent sequel, and countless other cinematic homages.
Zone 414 opens with a nod to Ridley Scott’s film and its decaying future Los Angeles of 2019. The camera moves over a gloomy megacity. Smoke rises out of rooftop vents. Signs and other lights flicker on and off under the strain of extreme consumption.
The camera pulls back, and more and more lights come into view. One sign is larger and brighter than all the rest. It reads, “Veidt Corporation”. The FX work here is ropey, the way the Veidt logo flickers looks strange. It gives the feeling of a pre-credits production company logo.
Quirks like this are the most interesting aspects of Zone 414. A futuristic driverless taxi with what looks like an Irish reg plate, the barely concealed locations in Belfast, the use of pounds instead of some techno-babble cryptocurrency in the dialogue and so on. These incidental details at the edges of the film are disarming and make for an oddly cosy and sometimes amusing trip through a tech-noir megalopolis.
Private eye David Carmichael (Guy Pearce) is hired by the head of the Veidt Corporation, Marlon (Travis Fimmel), to find his missing daughter, Melissa (Holly Demaine). She’s escaped to Zone 414, the “City of Robots”, a cordoned-off area where humans mingle with Veidt’s lifelike androids for a high price.
At Marlon’s mansion, Fimmel – sporting a bizarre wig and cumbersome make-up – fills Carmichael in on the rules of the Zone, which is effectively a red-light district for those seeking an “antidote to loneliness”. Marlon’s home is overstuffed with analogue gewgaws and antiques. A grandfather clock plays the Westminster chime as Marlon descends the stairs in the manner of a dinner-theatre Dracula. Fimmel is an accomplished enough actor, but fake teeth and some hammy dialogue get in the way of his talents.
Pearce is committed too, but most of his screen time is spent with his face fixed in a grimace. His expression is virtually unchanging. When Carmichael is confronted by an android Frankenstein’s monster later in the film, he greets this horror show with the same scowl he gave a polystyrene coffee cup earlier in the film. He’s a true, unflappable tough guy.
There are no new ideas in writer Bryan Edward Hill’s screenplay but the film does occasionally offer up some intriguing scenarios.
Olwen Fouéré, of the experimental theatre group Operating Theatre, recently featured in The Curious Works of Roger Doyle, plays Royale, the madam of an android brothel, sharing a couple of standout scenes with Carmichael’s android contact Jane (Matilda Lutz). These sequences exploring the dynamics of android sex work are welcome interludes to Carmichael’s sleuthing, which never manages to pick up much momentum.
A scene between Jane and one of her clients sees her change hair colour on command. In the Zone, androids adapt to their clients’ desires in real-time. This made-to-order companionship could come straight from the fetish-tinged futurism of Masamune Shirow. Shirow, like Hill, is a Blade Runner devotee.
Unfortunately for Baird’s film, any standout scenes or gimmicks give way to a dreary mystery plot that’s essentially a foregone conclusion. Of the major characters in the film it’s clear who’s up to no good, and the pleasure we get from solving the case before Carmichael is outweighed by the frustration of having to watch him figure it all out.
There are few set pieces to speak of and whether by fault of the script or direction the major action sequences play out as after-images of Blade Runner, only without that film’s production value. Though, Baird’s talent as a director is evident in a handful of sequences. A scene in an abandoned shipyard was a particular highlight. The photography is decent too, with DOP James Mather capturing a grim vision of a not-so-distant time, in what seems to be a not-so-distant place.
Zone 414 gestures to its own inspiration so heavily that it feels devoid of any identity of its own. Baird’s direction manages to distinguish itself here and there, but it can’t shake a by-the-numbers story and characters that play like worse versions of better movies. There’s a beating heart somewhere beneath the metallic surface, but it’s hard to hear over the same old cyberpunk beeps and boops we’ve been hearing for 40 years.
Zone 414 is available to rent or buy from Apple TV, Google Play Movies, Rakuten TV, Microsoft Store and Sky Store.