Jackrabbit (2015)

First published by VODzilla.co

“You two seem like an unlikely pair. How did you meet?”, asks Grace (Joslyn Jensen).

Simon (Josh Caras) and Max (Ian Christopher Noel) do indeed make an odd couple – the former with his conservative haircut, his collared shirt and tie, his clean-shaven cheeks, and his aspiration to be very much a part of the system, the latter with his peroxided Mohican, his unkempt beard, his threadbare T and his deep streak of rebellious recalcitrance. Strangers brought together by the suicide of their mutual friend Eric, Simon and Max are pursuing a trail of clues fed to them by the mysterious online figure SexyBeast666, even as this brings them ever closer to boundaries that one of them may not be willing to traverse.

The feature debut of director/co-writer Carleton Ranney, Jackrabbit is set 25 years after an event known as the Reset which plunged the US into darkness. City 6 has risen out of the ruins, with technocratic corporation VOPO rebuilding an infrastructure of basic utilities. This may be the future, but it is a dustblown, shabby, polluted world. VOPO’s digital firewall, designed to contain tightly the flow of information, and to prevent any external attempts to hack or corrupt, is a very sophisticated piece of equipment, operated by an élite of talented specialists (like Simon) who are rewarded with a life of relative luxury – but most citizens run equipment reconfigured from a blackmarket of obsolescent Eighties tech (dubbed ‘Tetris’), and live, under heavy surveillance and constant curfews, in poverty, squalor and desperation. The City’s guarded geographical borders and outer zones are designed not only to keep citizens in, but also to keep any hostile others out, so that the City is both desert oasis and prison to its denizens. These are, quite possibly, the last survivors on Earth, with access to water, “electricity, grocery stores, running cars” – but the suicide rate is high.

“We all have to make hard choices to survive”, VOPO’s avuncular CEO Paul Bateson (Reed Birney) tells Simon. The choice facing Simon is whether to maintain – and build on – a comfortable, if questionable, status quo, or to join a shadowy resistance in the terra incognita beyond. It is, essentially, the same choice that faced Neo in The Matrix (1999) – and in case the comparison is missed, we see Max fighting his addiction to pills red and blue, and Simon working to debug a wall of scrolling code. Ranney’s cyberpunk, however, comes in decidedly lo-fi form, with DIY retro technology and a distinct lack of special effects. Here Will Berman’s Carpenter-esque synth score accompanies human dramas delivered in similarly low key – undemonstrative,  understated and marked by a complete absence of histrionics. Even a character’s slow, sad decision to commit suicide is expressed through subtle looks and gestures rather than dialogue, the restraint of the performance and direction properly registering only after the event.

“What do you think’s out there?” This question is posed more than once in Jackrabbit, with specific reference to the arid, forbidden landscape beyond City 6 – but the fact that the question remains largely unanswered allows it to take on philosophical, eschatological, even theological aspects, as the film sets company man Simon’s urge to build walls – while making amends – against hacker Max’s drive to transcend, and asks which is the more civilised. Through this unlikely pairing, Ranney offers a dialectic that crosses barriers of class and ideology, without ever demonising either side of the divide. One thing is for sure: judging by his first offering, it will be well worth seeing what lies on the horizon for this enquiring, individualistic filmmaker.

Summary:  Carleton Ranney’s understated dystopian cyberpunk buddy flick makes unlikely pairings of clashing ideologies.

© Anton Bitel