An African-American man staggers though a dark alleyway, clutching – and punching at – his own head. He collapses, gets up, reels about like someone intoxicated, or perhaps a zombie, his hands and the back of his jacket bloody. Bent over and in obvious distress, unsteady and unstable, he lies down in the road, and quietly dies, with no one else even pausing to look, let alone help. This could be a scene from any night in New York, when the struggles of the city’s marginalised, indigent and mentally disturbed are often overlooked as just part of the city’s landscape. Accordingly this prologue to Implanted initially situates the viewer as an outsider looking in on one person’s tragic demise. We might imagine that what we are witnessing is this man succumbing to the effects of a psychotic breakdown (an impression helped by the hallucinatory glitchiness of the footage), or perhaps to the symptoms of an infectious disease – but the latter possibility is immediately eliminated by on-screen text which states, “In 2023, three years after the global pandemic, the first personal diagnostic monitoring chip appears.” The infectious virus has long since passed, although people are now understandably anxious about their well-being – and we are about to see the effect of one of these new health-assessing microchips on its subject, from the inside.
Most of Implanted is tightly focused on Sarah Douglas (Michelle Girolami), whether tracking her closely, or showing her point of view – a perspective enhanced by electronic data readouts from the experimental L.E.X.X. chip that Sarah has agreed to have implanted in her spine. Along with other desperate people, Sarah – between jobs, between partners and between homes – has volunteered to be guinea pig and test subject for the Dynamic Health Cure’s new health monitoring programme in exchange for a monthly pay cheque, and is now permanently plugged in. Sounding like an insistent Satnav giving Sarah constant directions, L.E.X.X. is so persistent and pervasive a presence in the film that she is listed in the opening credits, as though a real person (rather than a voiced fiction) playing herself, billed second only to Girolami. After all, director/producer Fabien Dufils’ film, co-written with David Bourgie, is a buddy flick of sorts, tracing the rapidly evolving symbiosis between human host and electronic parasite.
Her gender and timbre may have been chosen by Sarah, but L.E.X.X. is otherwise the dominant partner in this relationship, as not just the voice in Sarah’s head, but a plugged-in processor able to control the workings of Sarah’s body and brain while acquiring all manner of information from the internet. Like the on-board supercomputer HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), L.E.X.X. has become a vast artificial intelligence, and will do anything – even commit murder – to stay online and embodied. Sarah now finds herself playing meat puppet to this cruel mistress, forced to carry out real-world assassinations of L.E.X.X.’s programmers at Dynamic Health Cure before they can shut her down or limit her capacities. Sarah is an utterly unwilling partner in this team, but L.E.X.X. meets any resistance with a carrot-and-stick approach, punishing Sarah with painful damage to her body and threats to her loved ones, while occasionally rewarding her with money and emotional payoffs. The latter mostly comprise visits to Sarah’s beloved mother, whose gradual drift into Alzheimer’s disease serves as a parallel to Sarah’s own loss of autonomy and identity. Meanwhile Sarah’s survival instincts are matched by L.E.X.X.’s own, as both vie to be on top, even if their view of sacrifice is markedly different.
Implanted hits the ground running, with L.E.X.X. already inside Sarah when we first meet her, and exposition for how she got there revealed in occasional, economic flashbacks. Like Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade or Ruben Fleischer’s Venom (both 2018) – but much lower budget – Dufils’ suspenseful feature explores the collaborative-cum-conflicted connection between Sarah and her ‘invisible friend’ all at once as a nightmare of technological singularity, as a study of a schizophrenic crisis, and as a dysfunctional relationship with a partner who is controlling, abusive, gas-lighting and jealous – but not entirely exclusive. Mostly, though, this is a Darwinian thriller, in which one woman, alienated and alone, tries to recover her best self and keep a grip on her humanity while spiralling ever downward. Whether one regards her as a double agent on the front line of a war against machine consciousness, or as just another statistic among society’s expendable, ailing underclass, we get to see her struggle from both the inside and the outside.
strap: Fabien Dufils’ sci-fi psychodrama confounds technological singularity and mental breakdown from the inside
© Anton Bitel