By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Michelle Girolami, Ivo Velon and Susan O’Doherty
Directed by Fabien Dufils
Written by Fabien Dufils and David Bourgie
Say what you will about the murderous exploits of past sentient cinematic supercomputers—say, HAL 9000 in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or Skynet in THE TERMINATOR—at least the possibility of escape through evasion existed. Sure, maybe HAL could read your plotting lips and try to zero-gravity suffocate your whole damn crew. Race to the processor core, though, and you can find salvation pulling out those encyclopedia-sized memory cards. Maybe the cyborg assassin looks intimidatingly like the guy from CONAN THE BARBARIAN; lure it into that hydraulic press, however, and you get to drop that action-star F-bomb one-liner and umpteen tons of crushing steel.
In IMPLANTED, now available on digital platforms, nanotechnology–which could barely be fathomed when those aforementioned films were made (1968 and 1984, respectively) yet is completely plausible today—cuts off traditional routes of egress. Financially strapped and desperate to find a way to aid her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, our kindhearted yet extremely flawed protagonist Sarah (Michelle Girolami) agrees to allow pharmaceutical behemoth Dynamic Health Cure to implant the LEXX nanochip into her cerebral cortex. (Yikes…that’s definitely gonna leave a mark.)
Unfortunately for Sarah, that experimental test-subject cash comes with some serious artificial-intelligence strings. Sure, the soothing robot voice projected into her head begins innocently enough, popping in with advice on proper nutrition or the benefits of meditation. “Make efforts to live a low-stress lifestyle,” LEXX advises, “and cultivate relationships.” But quickly the chip, now (yep, you guessed it) sentient, veers in a decidedly more sinister direction, seizing control of Sarah’s body and turning her into a kind of Manchurian Candidate-plus assassin, making the deadly rounds to ensure no corporate toady or fancy-pants scientist will pull the plug on the program. In other words, the AI call, to refashion the old BLACK CHIRSTMAS/WHEN A STRANGER CALLS trope, is coming from inside her body.
Complicating matters further, there are others out there with implants and their own marching orders, creating an environment in which every lingering glance on the street must be sized up as a potential threat, and trust is nearly impossible. So much for a low-stress lifestyle! So much for cultivating relationships!
Writer/director Fabien Dufils is not subtle about using this plot to explore more organic, time-immemorial philosophical and existential quandaries of human existence. (The film’s poster tagline: “Everybody Has a Price. What’s Yours?”) In an imperfect–some might say fallen–world, none of us exit as pure as we enter. If we’re being honest, few of us would like to show even our closest loved ones how often our compromise card has been punched. In IMPLANTED, we are asked to consider: How far is it ethically permissible to go in order to save your own life? How about to save the life of an innocent? (Sarah’s mother, here.) How does one determine the degree of culpability the creators of LEXX have for playing tech God with the lives of other human beings? (However initially well-intentioned…) How do you balance that culpability against the life of, again, a presumed innocent such as Sarah’s mom?
These are not simple questions, obviously. Which is why, by the lights of your humble reviewer, the fact that IMPLANTED in some ways feels like a more modestly budgeted revisiting of Leigh Whannell’s UPGRADE is no narrative crime. That film did not answer these questions—why shouldn’t they be revisited via a slightly different path? Mirroring life, the film is better paced and executed in some parts than others. A few of the tech-y special effects have, ironically, a slightly behind-the-times vibe, but suspend your disbelief already, people. The core of the film is Sarah’s internal struggle with LEXX, and Girolami channels this fight for us, the audience, with real pathos, relatability and, eventually, primal intensity.
IMPLANTED is more a grappling than a revelation, it’s true. But that’s important, too—whether you have a sentient chip turning you into an unwilling assassin or you’re just trying to navigate a post-pandemic, post-privacy for-better-and-worse interconnected reality for which there is no guidebook.