Stars: Jeremy Sisto, Deborah Unger, Bruce Payne, Eugene Byrd, Ana Maria Popa, Lance Henriksen and Udo Kier
Released on DVD as Paranoia:1.0, that title fits this material pretty well, as a young programmer called Simon J spends this film trying to work out what's being done to him. He keeps receiving neatly wrapped but apparently empty packages at his apartment which is enough to make anyone wonder. He has other worries on his mind too, as he's overdue on his projects at work and he's getting eviction notices, but now he wonders if someone's following him. Certainly every time he comes back home, there's another empty box waiting for him inside his apartment. What's worse, there are cameras everywhere and not one of them picks anything up that he can use to identify who's doing this to him, whatever this is.
Everything around him is strange, including the people. His landlord's fridge contains nothing but meat. His neighbour Derrick has a robotic head and a self cleaning couch in his apartment. Trish is a nurse but hangs out at some sort of underground bar, literally underground in what look like cleaned out sewer tunnels. Another neighbour runs bizarre virtual reality bondage games on the net. The local supermarket is always empty except for en elusive follower but the cashier is surreal. We're not sure who or what Howard is, but he's some sort of handyman who does Al Jolson impressions. Simon hears people talking from within the garbage chute. Even his own computer has taken to spitting out messages like 'Do you want to know what it is to be afraid?'
It can't help that he lives in an environment that is big and empty, old and European, desolate and decaying. It's shot in wonderfully saturated colours that exude textures like ancient oak, burnished brass or antique leather, even when actually depicting rot and decay. We're not told when or where this film is set, obviously by deliberate choice of the filmmakers, but it fits that it was shot in Romania, a country with a rich heritage that was nigh on destroyed a couple of decades ago by Nicolae Ceauşescu. Kafka-esque is the word of the day, especially as Simon J just has to be a take on Josef K, but there's a huge amount of Philip K Dick in here too, because Simon's paranoia seems to be well founded and as we get sucked into this story we can only wonder how big the conspiracy is and who is involved.
The root of it all is in nanotechnology, with corporate nanites released into the wild to act as advertising signals directly to the brain and turn people into human billboards. This is why everyone in the story seems to be focused on one product alone to the exclusion of all others, whether that be juice, meat or cola. In Simon's case it's Nature Fresh Milk, to which he's apparently allergic. Even with that knowledge though, we can't be sure who's doing this, who's on his side and who isn't, and I'm sure it'll take a few viewings to fully work all that out. It's a highly intelligent plot that revels in not being simplistic. As Howard explains at one point to Simon, 'There are good people and bad people. The bad people can save you but they won't. The good people want to save you but they can't.' We have no idea who fits into each category as almost anyone in this film could easily fit into either. That's the point.
This is a real triumph, an intelligent science fiction story that deliberately removes itself from time and place yet remains utterly timely. Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson wrote and directed and both look to have interesting filmographies to work through. This picture marked the first credits for each of them as both writer and director. Thorsson has done neither of those things since though has worked on a number of films in different roles. Renfroe has made a few more pictures, mostly TV movies made for Syfy (hate that name), but will write and direct the forthcoming futuristic ice age movie The Colony, which is in pre-production. They're both obviously names to watch.
Somehow, and I'd love to know how, they landed a peach of a cast for their first feature. Simon J is a very believable Jeremy Sisto, best known nowadays for TV series Six Feet Under and Law & Order but who is also a prolific film actor with four other movies to his name in 2004 alone. He also co-produced this film. Derrick is Udo Kier, a very well known genre name who has credits going back to 1966 and who has worked for pretty much every great name in modern European cinema. A very busy man, Kier has racked up almost fifty titles in this decade alone and he's always interesting to watch. Trish is Deborah Kara Unger, credited here without the Kara, and she's tended to find quirky roles ever since she was so memorable in Cronenberg's Crash in 1996.
The lesser names don't disappoint either, most especially Eugene Byrd, who I know mostly from TV's Bones, as a characterful courier, able to provide anything to anyone. Best of all though is Lance Henriksen, definitely showing his age but his talent too, as Howard. The various projects he's working on at present push him to a full hundred titles in his filmography and I bet every single one of them will be fascinating for what he does, if not for any other reason. You could easily call this a genre dream cast and that's only going to help this little gem to find a cult audience.