'Vice' A Glitchy Replicant of Past Theme Park, Robot Turmoil

Directed by: Brian A. Miller; Runtime: 96 minutes
Grade: D

With advancements in technology and the perseverance of immersive entertainment (videogames, live-action role-playing), Michael Crichton's idea for Westworld -- realistic environments populated with lifelike robots designed for rules-free chaos for those with the financial means -- seems closer to feasible in our not-so-distant future than depicted in the '70s sci-fi classic. Despite nagging concerns over financial viability or legal restrictions, that need for a break from the mundane constrictions of everyday life has materialized in similar, evolving higher-concept films over the years, from the covert thrill-seeking experience of The Game to the lawless bedlam of The Purge. Vice, the latest from B-movie director Brian A. Miller, takes a more direct approach to updating the idea, creating a metropolitan paradise full of realistic humanoid robots who can be solicited, assaulted, and killed without negative repercussions. Any interest generated by Vice's potential fades inside cumbersome plotting and drab performances, however, with nothing new to say and only cursory interest in both the citizens maneuvering through the resort and the puppet master making it a reality.

It's odd to see Bruce Willis in a role quite as nondescript as Julian Michaels, the stoic creator and overseer behind the Vice resort: a place where "artificials" replicate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of actual people while human patrons have their way with them without any tangible rules. His presence adds little to the authoritative events that transpire underneath his character's watch, sparked by one of the artificial intelligences, Kelly (Ambyr Childers), a bartender programmed with aspirations to leave the city for dramatic effect, who starts to have mental flashes and dreams about events that never happened to her. Turns out, they're fragments of memories from the previous interactions she's had with Vice's guests that have been erased by engineers, purged with every reset of her predestined character arc. Eventually, she earns the attention of a local police detective, Roy Todeski (Thomas Jane), who's been hell-bent on shutting down Vice for some time, sparking a connection of events hinged on Kelly's self-awareness ... and Julian's diligence in keeping his creations in line and open for business.

In place of ramshackle saloons and medieval dining halls emphasizing the whimsy of the scenario, Vice duplicates the near-future setting of a contemporary, mid-tier waterfront city one might find anywhere throughout North America, studded with high-class bars, dance clubs, banks to rob and brothels to frequent. It's relatively mundane, but that's part of the point: wealthy patrons do the things in an everyday environment they're not able to do in their everyday environment, disregarding laws and morality to work out their deepest, darkest kinks. Director Miller manages to disguise the film's micro-budget by emphasizing moody lighting and lingering on frequent Dutch angles that capture the resort's livelier activities, including a few gunfights, foot chases ... and, uh, other lascivious pursuits. This mild visual style can't cover up the script's Swiss-cheese retooling of a familiar concept, though, where moments focused on Bruce Willis vacantly laboring over computer screens and Thomas Jane's awkwardly roguish sleuthing eat up the time sorely needed to flesh out its more intriguing particulars.

That's because Vice ends up being more concerned with Kelly's burgeoning self-awareness than with the resort itself, reducing the logistics to how the place operates -- legality, sustainability, technology -- to hastily-addressed and tedious background noise with little purpose beyond adding immediacy to her awakening. Instead of a malfunctioning gunslinger gone rogue due to faulty programming, this story focuses on an unremarkable, tormented robo-citizen of Vice discovering her reason for being, skewing more towards rote science-fiction and moral thought-exercise as it dissects her memory wipes and Julian's machinations in maintaining control. With the right personality, this flip in focus could've worked; however, Kelly ends up being exceptionally one-dimensional, partially by design but also because of Ambyr Childers' static performance. Her characterization gets perked up a bit by a mysterious stranger, Bryan Greenberg's Evan, with intimate knowledge of her origin and programming, but there's no getting around the fundamental issues of this aloof android being in the spotlight while surrounded by a loosely-realized clone of a setting.

Little of that really matters once Vice boots up its core purpose: a formulaic cat-and-mouse chase between a synthetic creation and the might of her stony creator's forces, sporadically interrupted by the antics of a superfluous detective. Consequently, the second half of Miller's film leaks into an unconvincing jumble of frivolous logic and flat expressiveness, driven by inept militaristic forces and fickle technology behind the artificials' memories and tracking devices. Those problems all converge at a particular moment where Kelly's given the opportunity to embrace her synthetic capabilities or reject it in quasi-rebellion of her machine self, one that would've resonated stronger had she been a more tangible (and consistent) persona. Whatever comments about fantasy and reality that the film might convey, about clutching onto the truths of one's existence, they're squandered in the messiness of the plot to the end, futily ping-ponging between references to popular sci-fi bits in hopes of overwriting the malfunctions in its system.

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