AAustralian filmmaker Ivan Sen’s sci-fi Loveland poses some very Philip K Dickian questions about the nature of consciousness and post-human evolution. Ryan Kwanten is Jack, a deadly hit man who – like so many movie killers before him – is gloomy and self-loathing, but longs for something bigger. Its backstory justifies its emotional emptiness, though this does little to enthuse audiences with an unsympathetic lead, played with hazy gloom.
Movies led by similar characters often use a love interest with obvious vulnerabilities to mitigate the misanthropy of the hatched man: like the woman hurt by Chow Yun-fat’s killer in John Woo’s classic The Killer, doomed to go blind without a surgery, or the deaf-mute pharmacist Nicolas Cage dates in Bangkok Dangerous. In the wrong hands, this kind of clutch serves a crude message: Killers have emotional needs too!
There’s an element of that in Loveland, when Sen introduces April (Jillian Nguyen), a singer who meets Jack in a dowdy venue with the vibes of a brothel crossed with a karaoke bar. April chooses her from a lineup of women and performs for Jack from behind a one-way window, and the pair then develop a relationship. He views April (consciously or not) as an opportunity for his spiritual revival, but there’s a catch: her presence, while emotionally restorative, seems to make him sick for weird science fiction reasons — and perhaps terminally. dr. Bergman, an enigmatic scientist played with gravitas by the ever-trustworthy Hugo Weaving, arrives to find out what’s going on.
Loveland is beautifully shot and continues a collection of visually interesting productions by Sen, who serves as cameraman, editor and composer. The film is set in the near-future Hong Kong, although it feels more like an alternative present, with little obvious visual embellishment brightening up the already futuristic-looking city.
This world is dotted with robotic creations, which raise familiar questions about the extent to which humans and machines merge. At one point, Jack asks, ‘Are they going to be more like us? Or are we become the machine?” This use of machines to contemplate human identity in increasingly virtual and digitized societies has been explored so extensively that it may be time for sci-fi to move on.
Literary critic N Katherine Hayles famously claimed (more than 20 years ago) that people already evolved into a posthuman state, with the posthuman perspective choosing information over material forms to view the biological embodiment as “a coincidence of history rather than an inevitability of life”. If that sounds a little heavy, wait until you hear the dialogue and story in Loveland, which is heavy and heavy from the start, but gets jarring as the playtime goes on. Or maybe his heavy-handedness only becomes more apparent with more of it: Jack is the narrator, then April gets a voiceover, too — and Dr. Bergman too.
This trio certainly lays it down on thick, soft mysteries with writing seemingly devoted to violating the old “show don’t tell” dictum: Expect lines like, “What are you praying for, in the darkness?” and “No reason shall sustain itself until the dawn.” It’s almost impossible to make writing like this sound natural, so Sen strives for a kind of heightened realism, gloomy and poetic – which is hard to do without coming off a little tinny.
Sen delivered heavy heaviness much better in his outback noir Goldstone, another production that takes familiar genre mechanics and slows them down altogether. In Loveland, the dialogue and narration are so full that it almost breaks the fourth wall in its artifice, pulling the viewer out of the experience by reminding us of the filming process (particularly the writing process). This undeniably ambitious film works best as a mood piece: it’s grand, daring, cerebral and intensely unsubtle.