BRAND NEW-U (2015)
Directed by Simon Pummell
We all want to be the best version of ourselves that we can. This is a simple fact that’s spawned a billion dollar industry. Around us millions of people are flicking through the pages of brightly coloured books, attending workshops and paying life coaches. You may even be one, in which case I hope you find what you’re looking for. The point is that we want to come across a secret – something that can simultaneously improve our lives and, equally importantly, us. But what if we could simply pay a corporation to upgrade ourselves? So is the premise for seasoned documentary director Simon Pummell’s debut sci-fi thriller.
Our setting is a futuristic London and that company are Brand New-U. With a business model as dubious as The Umbrella Corporation, they specialise in finding ‘identicals’ (i.e. people living parallel lives to others, but are fitter, happier and smarter) and replacing them with unsatisfied clients. Naturally this operation is fraught with some serious room for error, and within 15 minutes an attempt to abduct and upgrade Nadia (Noone) is botched. Looking down at the duplicate body of her replacement, boyfriend Slater (Nieboer) begins on a hunt to find out where (and who) she is. In the clinical white corridors of the same shadowy organization she used, he agrees to a personal rebranding and relocation if it helps him find her.
Armed with a photo of them together, this hasty decision takes him to shiny but decoratively austere rooms in vast space-age noir cityscapes, where hovering robots watch people work and infrared towers hang over endless roads of lights. As with the pristine appearance promised by plastic surgery, this looks amazing. The world-building is made even more impressive by the budget being so darn small. Brand New-U reportedly cost less than 2 million to make, but you wouldn’t know it. Some sequences are truly arresting, and a dream like feel underlies each and every last unique frame. Scored with an effectively ominous electronic soundtrack, Pummell does an admirable job of creating an atmosphere worthy of a genre veteran. Unfortunately Slater’s not here to see the sights or ask many questions, so the ins and outs of this intriguing setting are left very vague.
But a core problem is it never really feels like he’s there for much reason at all. Sure, it’s nice seeing him meet the new Nadia and them falling in love all over again. During these scenes he remembers her, but she doesn’t know him, and the concept is ripe for touching scenes of a budding romance that transcends personal identity. Yet for the supposed love of his life he has very little personal chemistry with her no matter which incarnations share the screen. Whilst some of this can be attributed to the charisma-lite performances, it’s really more about a script that appears to equate minimalism with depth and gives otherwise strong actors little to work with. Both of them are defined by their relationship and have little evident psychological depth. Instead they are driverless vehicles for the movie’s often intriguing ideas. Consequently, when Slater’s meddling see him chased down by his own upgrade it’s difficult to root for either version. Pair this up with a twisting plot, and the lack of emotional hook really undoes much of the solid groundwork.
There’s a lot of unfulfilled potential in this film. It’s timely, dealing with paranoia, the advent of social media, and how technology both helps and inhibits our projection of something as organic as who we are. But dialogue should not be treated like just another sound effect, there to advance the plot. It’s hard to create a world that makes us want to see more. Though without interesting people to explore it with it’s as empty as the volumes of self-help manuals that clutter too many bookshelves in our own one. For filmmakers, if there’s a secret to make your movie better then it’s three dimensional characters. Now if only it were that easy for the rest of us.