Because SciFi fans have grown accustomed to accepting less, industry suits are all too happy to finance budget schlock like VICE, the kind of thing that ceased being original in the mid-1970’s and instead tries to capture magic by blending up elements of every Artificial Intelligence story that’s come down the pike ever since. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have a little bit of fun watching it; I did, but it’s the kind of fun the ‘Adult Me’ can now comfortably admit feeling dirty over.
VICE begins with a commercial from cyber-industrialist Julian Michaels (played with smug acclaim from Bruce Willis). He’s built a modern day ‘vice’ empire (see how that works?) by cornering the synthetic human market with a single purpose: he offers customers for a high price the chance to play out any depraved impulse on these faux people arguing that they’re not victims since they get rebooted at the end of every business day. Enter the hero: tough, sarcastic, and embittered police detective Roy (Thomas Jane) thinks Vice is contributing to real societal decay, and he’ll stop at nothing to take down Michaels and his army of goons if it’s the last thing he does!
It might all sound clichéd, but that’s only because it is: anyone who has seen Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) knows how this is all going to end. (I have seen it, and – rest assured – I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.) Also, there are strong similarities between these concepts and themes that audiences have already been treated to in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Bicentennial Man (1999), Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Caradog James’ The Machine (2013) Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), or any number of episodes dealing with Commander Data aboard Star Trek: The Next Generation. VICE’s script from Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore even dumbs down the science – perhaps they didn’t have the budget? – using healthy bits of exposition (characters ‘explaining’ the premise) in lieu of ramping up anything remotely original much less interesting.
How do we know?
Well, in the film’s conclusion, the synths are allowed to experience a kind of freedom, but it isn’t one that’s legitimately won and awarded to them by their own devices; instead, it’s the same old “let’s upload a virus” solution audiences have been asked to swallow ad naseum. The humans are given a dose of their own medicine, and it’s a cure best administered in fisticuffs. One sin answers another sin, and the cycle will inevitably begin again, assuming that there’s a sequel in the offing. (The flick closes with a subtle hint, but methinks the box office returns of this feature will probably keep a follow-up forever in development.)
None of this is to say that VICE is as awful as it could have been. Director Brian A. Miller certainly has some chops with camera trickery, and the performances – while all largely predictable – work only so well as they’re needed. No one in front of the camera or behind it really went the extra mile, and that’s why I’d honestly suggest that this is the kind of fare that plays just fine on Syfy Saturday night. But as a big budget feature? There just isn’t enough here.
VICE is the kind of film that gives Science Fiction its bad wrap. Were it the first flick of its kind to deal with artificial intelligence gone awry in the future just days beyond the present, then maybe – maybe – it would’ve had a chance to give audiences something to think about of substance. However, as the story suffers from a very heavy “been there done that” vibe, it all ends up exactly where one expected … mostly ‘cause that required no real input from anyone, screenwriters included.