AKA Paranoia 1.0 (DVD)
DIRECTED BY: Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson
FEATURING: , Deborah Kara Unger, , Eugene Byrd,
PLOT: Computer programmer Simon J develops crippling paranoia, and a craving for branded milk, when he begins receiving a series of empty packages at his apartment.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Telling the classic tale of corporate-owned dystopia through a low-budget lens mixing Kafka and noir, the film creates a uniquely arthouse-ian mashup out of familiar tropes.
COMMENTS: Jeff Renfroe (no connection, thankfully, to the trucker from that exploitation shock-fest The Bunny Game) is a director whose name is not likely to be widely recognized, but who, as the cutthroat movie industry goes, hasn’t done too badly for himself. Certainly, he’s been chiefly restricted to TV episodes, but they’re decent gigs: “Killjoys,” “Helix,” “Dominion,” and various other shows that, while crowd-pleasing in that way that modern television is obligated to be, are far from the worst that the medium has to offer.
Point is, I like to console myself about the negligible notice that Renfroe’s directorial debut got by telling myself that, judging by the path his career took, he must have at least impressed somebody relatively high up.
Paranoia 1.0—or One Point O, as it was called at its Sundance premier—follows Simon J, an isolated computer programmer struggling to meet his latest deadline. When a succession of empty packages begin mysteriously appearing in his apartment, Simon finds himself overwhelmed by a growing sense of crippling paranoia, and an insatiable craving for Nature Fresh brand milk.
Paranoia 1.0 draws its primary influences from film noir, Kafka, and philosophical science fiction. None of these are genres or styles I’m particularly familiar with; but I know enough to be able to tell that their combination here is a major part of what lends the film its particular atmosphere.
In the tradition of low-budget sci-fi, Paranoia 1.0 takes place in that weird historical limbo that exists only in films: contemporary fashions, computers and coding interfaces exist alongside rotary phones and vaguely Soviet architectural backdrops (the film was shot in Bucharest), while artificial intelligences, nanotechnology and VR games that are advanced even by today’s standards factor heavily into the plot.
There’s a myriad of reasons why one could argue that—in comparison with Hollywood’s tendency to invest in polished, lily-white backdrops that make the world of the future look like a gigantic Apple store—this rugged and piecemeal representation of the future comes across as more genuine. But in this case, the most relevant aspect of it is its timelessness, a timelessness that matches fittingly with the movie’s themes.
Wandering into spoiler territory: near the end of the film, it becomes clear that the various addictions to branded products afflicting the film’s characters is triggered by brain-infesting nanobots, released among ordinary people by corporations to drive up their profit margins. Even at the time of the film’s release in 2004, viewers insisted that casting faceless, profit-hungry corporations as the villain of a sci-fi outing was a tired cliché. After all, it had been over two decades since Blade Runner first made it a genre standard. But like many clichés, it endures in great part due to its continued relevance. It’s hardly a secret that the modern corporate world is more than happy to latch onto sufferers of addiction and milk them for all the profit they are worth. For anyone affected, directly or indirectly, by these tactics, the notion of the corporations deliberately triggering addictions to their products feels not only plausible, but damn near inevitable—especially in light of the younger generation’s continued worship of unrestrained capitalism.
But as the DVD title implies, the focus of this heavily psychological film is not the addiction, but the paranoia. Already an isolated individual clearly worn down by his grim living situation, Simon J is pushed over the edge by the abrupt appearance of packages in his seemingly secure apartment. Suspicion begins to suffocate him, and he isolates himself from the few individuals with whom he has any meaningful contact, including his affable old neighbor Derrick (played by that ubiquitous face of not-quite-mainstream cinema, Udo Kier) and Nile, his courier and sole friend.
In amidst this, there’s… well, other stuff happening. Simon’s landlord is spying on the tenants. Derrick, a sci-fied Gepetto, is building a robot (with a horrifying baby-doll-like head) to serve as the son he never had. Another neighbor, played by Bruce Payne at his sleaziest, has built a virtual reality sex simulator that happens to incorporate Trish, the morose young lady from down the hall. It all adds up to create that staple of good sci-fi: a world that is simultaneously absurd and familiar, embodying the bizarre, yet logical progression of trends already familiar to the modern world.
There’s plenty of room to argue that Paranoia 1.0 lacks focus, or that it attempts to tackle subject matter bigger than its budget allows for. But as is so often the case, those with an appreciation for the dynamics of low-budget cinema can find ways to appreciate the approach that the film takes—be it out of necessity or artistic choice––to its subject matter. For instance, the fact that we see little of the film’s dystopic world beyond Simon’s gloomy apartment block, or that the film’s corporate giants have little physical presence beyond the trench-coated goons that lurk around the edges of the film, could be seen as a sign of limited resources, or as an accurate reflection of the fact that, in a corporate-owned world, the average man will has little conception of the world’s greater mechanics, and any manifestation of his true commercial overlords will be miles beyond his grasp.
There’s a familiar tale told here; but it’s familiar because of its enduring—perhaps even increasing—relevance to modern society. The unique manner in which the film relays this theme—minimalistic without being insubstantial, and blended with other familiar tropes—lends it a fresh element of intrigue. It’s a treat for anyone with an appreciation for the quieter, artier manifestations of the sci-fi genre.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The new Kafka-esque thriller Paranoia 1.0 (aka One Point 0) is a pitch-black vision of horror, madness, and technology-run-amok that will give cyber-geeks plenty of unpleasant dreams.”–Ultimo Franco, Dread Central (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Chritsophe, who named it one of his “favorite weird sci-fi movies.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)