Realive (2016)

Beginning with graphic images of its protagonist’s (first) birth, and unfolding in a fractured narrative that switches constantly between different stages in a life story interrupted across two centuries, Realive offers a blend of high-concept SF and philosophical concerns that were already in evidence in writer/director Mateo Gil’s 1997 screenplay for Open Your Eyes (remade in 2001 as Vanilla Sky). Here he updates the Frankenstein myth to explore not just the expected issues of medical and scientific ethics, but also ideas of time, memory, identity, and the Cartesian division of mind and body.

Young, successful and wealthy, Marc Jarvis (Tom Hughes) has his whole life ahead of him – until an untreatable cancer appears in his pharynx, and he is told he will be dead within a year. This news comes at a moment when he and Naomi (Oona Chaplin) – star cross’d occasional lovers who never seem able to get their timing right – are finally together as a couple. Having witnessed his father’s prolonged and painful succumbing to illness, Marc decides to end his life while still relatively healthy, having made arrangements with Naomi for his corpse to be quickly cryonised in the hope that an easy cure for his condition can be found in the future.

In 2084 Marc is resurrected as the first (successful) subject in the Prodigy Health Corporation’s so-called Lazarus Project. In a body that is only partly his own, he struggles to rebuild his disrupted sense of identity, and to readjust to a life of dislocation and isolation, with help from his nurse Elizabeth (Charlotte Le Bon). When “regenerative medicine’s new genius” West (Barry Ward) proposes bringing Naomi back to life too, as a bride for the lonely ‘monster’, Marc, now in his second life, takes a difficult decision that he has in fact made once before.

Introduced to a futuristic headset known as a MindWriter that enables its users to record their thoughts and memories, Marc is advised “to concentrate on the images and sounds, to make them focus – like in the movies you used to watch.” Accordingly, the movie that we are watching purports to be a shared file of free-associative impressions that Marc has compiled as a testament of the peculiar insight that his unorthodox lifeline has afforded him. This patchwork of experiences from two separate eras adds up to a series of insights about birth and death, while the love story that comes in between is repeatedly elided, deferred or terminated. As Dr Victor West – whose name is a composite of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West – puts it, summarising Marc’s essential flaw: “he sacrificed a remarkable woman for an inadequate dream.”

Marc’s narration often seems a concatenation of questions (e.g. “When you get rid of everything you ever were, what’s left?”, “Why do we yearn so desperately for life after death?”, “Can a man only live in his mind?”). Although this is a strategy that risks conjuring the vapid spirit of Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw (whose voice-over is similarly interrogative in mood), it is entirely in keeping with a film that is so oriented towards genuine philosophical enquiry. Indeed the science fictions of Realive might be regarded as an elaborate thought experiment – and in one grotesque scene here, the image of a disembodied (yet still conscious) head evokes the famous Cartesian ‘brain in a vat‘ thought experiment. Mostly though Realive is both memento mori and memento vivere, with a deep seam of human tragedy to keep us engaged and moved – and its recurrent obsession with views of the ocean gives rise, early on in the film, to one of the most beautifully abstract images of an individual’s leap into death’s unknown infinity that this viewer has ever seen.

© Anton Bitel