Debug (2015)

This 2014 Canadian sci-fi horror, written and directed by David Hewlett, sets its stall up in the trailer as a medium budget, medium concept bit of midweek fun. It doesn’t suggest anything ground breaking or radical, and it doesn’t lean too heavily on having scooped Jason Momoa for a lead role. For a film that doesn’t have enough critic reviews to get a Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic rating, it arrived into the watch pile with the due fanfare of it just turning up on the “customers have also watched…” rolodex between Jurassic Galaxy and 2099 The Soldier Protocol. Filled with duly tapered expectations, it turned out to continue it’s tepidity by being mildly surprisingly good.

The film starts with a half-dozen IT specialists flying around the galaxy on a prison work-release program; because even in space, giant ship-sized super-computers need turning off-and-on again. Kaida (co-played by Jeananne Goossen’s solid acting and her bosom being centre frame for every shot) is the aloof one, James (Adam Butcher) is the young one, Mel (Kerr Hewitt) is the jerk team leader; Kyle Mac, Sidney Leeder and Jadyn Wong are the underdeveloped characters there to bulk out the body count, and Capra (Adrian Holmes) is in-charge of the mission but surprisingly doesn’t say anything about how far away he is from retirement. They’ve been tasked with going on the externally CGIed, and internally mainly corridor, space-ship and wipe all traces of the resident AI; Jason Momoa in a suit and with a streak of white hair.

That streak of white hair is intense foreshadowing that the ship’s AI, Iam (get it!), has gone a bit crazy and killed everyone that was previously on the ship. So, either because Iam absorbed the minds of all the prisoners that used to be his charges, or because he doesn’t want to get wiped, he sets about firstly messing around with the team’s heads and then just killing them in a number of interesting and surprisingly inefficient ways. After a series of mind games which fill in the A-characters’ backstories a bit, and show off an assortment of shiny future-tech gadgets being used for things way outside their warranty, they work out that the AI is after them and come together to fight back, with a variety of success, and then make the obligatory and inevitable last stand.

So far, so meh. However, David Hewlett does an absolute blinder of a job of riffing off of far better movies and he manages to make it all very watchable. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cube, Final Destination, Event Horizon, Resident Evil, and more all get their moments in the spotlight. None are lifted whole-sale, but cribbed off enough and with sufficient skill to punch things up a level. Similarly, the relatively-low budget is worked around with clever reuse of sets, a lot of tight-shots of people’s heads and their built-in VDU hacking displays, and not taking risks with showing off too much of anything spectacular for too long. The end result of the visual choices further heightens the tension by creating a real sense of claustrophobia.

The acting is also worth noting, as everyone does a very commendable job with some pretty thin characterisation and a number of clunky lines. No one is going to win any awards for the work done, especially as half the cast appear intentionally limited to one note performances, but they all manage to bring clear intentions and motivations to their characters. In a couple of ways it’s quite natural writing, as they are all criminals just doing a job so they can get time off their sentence, and kind of brave to make almost no one likable enough for you to really root for them.

But then Dylan Harman turns up to play James’s disabled brother and the whole thing is handled incredibly well, not least because they got an actor with Down’s Syndrome to play a character with that condition. Next, there are a whole lot of things on the set, like golf clubs, plants, and photo frames that make the ship look like it was really used by real people as a work place. There’s a background plot that is pretty horrific, and all the pieces just lie around for you to possibly notice. The film has sudden breaks from the cliché, and moments that you could never see coming but are fully earned. Even the aforementioned costume choices made for Kaida could be seen as part of the efforts taken to give six people in enforced minimalist uniforms more unique and identifiable looks.

None of it is enough to make this anything other than what it is; a medium-good movie done well. But it’s enough to keep you watching and interested, long after you would normally have packed it in. It’s the kind of thing that if someone put on whilst you were in the room you wouldn’t walk out because it’s on, and then halfway through it’s very tight 82 minutes runtime, you’d discover you were engaged with. Will it wow you? No. But it will entertain and that’s good enough to make it a Treasure, especially if you accept it knows its limitations and is able to frequently peak just above them.

The Raggedyman

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