It’s time for an exciting three-way combo of amazing opportunity: a horror anthology with a bit of a cyberpunk taste to it! It’s also got a spectacular cast of “oooh, it’s them! From that film!” actors, and, in a random act of trivia, the music was done by J.J. Abrams. This can’t possibly go wrong, as nothing JJ Abrams has been involved in has ever been a shonky rip-off of better things that totally misses what made them good in the first place.
Things start reasonably well as Martin Kove establishes himself as a futuristic psychiatrist who just happens to look like he’s in a soft-core porno because that’s how his sections are shot, the wardrobe has been selected, and his office is decorated. He explains the McGuffin of virtual reality therapy to the hyper-stressed Vivian Schilling and then the machine goes “verrrrr” enough so that anyone who knows this kind of story realises everything else we’re about to watch is all a dream. So far, so no time waster on setting up the framing device and cutting to the first story.
This first story mostly involves Schilling wandering around her very nice house in Somewhere Expensive, California, and being scared shitless of everything. It’s shot like a power-ballad promo video and lasts an impressive 30 minutes with only two plot beats and a lot of excessive yelping. Fans of heavily telegraphed jump scares and rich people being paranoid in a minimally decorated mansion are in for a treat. Everyone else is going to start out interested and then wish it would move on to something new quickly, especially as it’s so obvious that it’s all a dream. When the twist ending eventually kicks in, it hangs around just long enough to feel overly smug and make you wonder how traumatizing someone with wild hallucinations could ever begin to work as a technique and if the next section could get any better.
Thankfully, things do improve as Bill Paxton turns up as a hellish roommate and torments the mild-mannered Timothi-Jane Graham for our amusement. Again, we are fully aware that this is a therapy session (somehow) so the stakes are impressively low. However, it’s got just enough comedic intensity and random plot twists to keep us entertained. Also, Paxton is effortlessly amazing in this section and brings a devilish charm that makes you truly engage with his bastardly behaviour. Graham manages to be just the right side of terrified throughout, so we manage to stay sympathetic to him, but his inevitable fate is reduced by the fact we know none of it is real.
The final story is the most visually interesting and starts with Sam Clay finding out he’s dead. We then get to watch a series of vignettes about his life, and his fears, as we try to work out how and why he died. The cast for this is fantastic, with everyone bringing vitality and pizzazz to their performances, and it offers a rolling “slice of life” as well as actual sympathy towards Clay’s character. But we know it’s all happening in VR so there is only so drawn in you can feel as someone will eventually snap their fingers and we’ll be back in the doctor’s office. It also commits the ultimate of movie sins: showing us better movies that we could be watching.
Normally, I would take two out of three parts of an anthology being good as a solid win. But because of how one-note the opener is, how little the background concept is played with, and how we know It’s All A Dream, it manages to plod along workmanly rather than excite. At just under 100 minutes, it drags its feet and gives you plenty of time to contemplate how disasteriously sued any medical professional would be for even considering using the techniques demonstrated.
This is very noticeably three unconnected horror concepts, at varying levels of interest and preparedness, hammered into a sci-fi setting because that kind of thing was all abuzz at the time. It’s Trash of the thinnest, most mediocre kind, even with a couple of very good moments in it. I can’t even encourage it for the most completionist of cyberpunk fans, as you’ll just be wanting a film that handles the theoretically interesting idea that is its framing device with any kind of care or consideration.