Darkdrive (1997): Plug In Baby

Matty gives the nod to Phillip J. Roth’s moody sci-fi thriller.

Compellingly bleak, technically exquisite and visually impressive, Phillip J. Roth’s DARKDRIVE is an effective slice of science fiction anchored by a melancholic throughline and a poetic, Owl Creek-inspired coda. An elegiac mood piece masquerading as a Fortress (1992)/Demolition Man (1993)/Johnny Mnemonic (1995) hybrid, Darkdrive finds Roth back in the same arthouse terrain as his earlier Prototype (1992) after two relatively more stringent sci-fi blast-’em-ups, A.P.E.X. (1994) and Digital Man (1995). Gorgeously lensed by Andres Garreton, the film oozes an eerie and unusual atmosphere accentuated by the visual contrast between the chilly, blue-tinted hues of its Seattle location shooting/‘real world’ setting, and the fiery orange and red colour palette when Roth plugs us into Darkdrive’s shadowy VR realm; a nightmarish purgatory populated by marauding felons.  

Written by Alec Carlin, the fever dream plot concerns disenchanted computer wiz Steven Falcon (Ken Olandt). Left distraught by the murder of his wife (future Buffy and Dexter star Julie Benz), the revenge-hungry Falcon returns to the sinister company he used to work for (a Weyland-Yutani esque conglomerate, natch) when his creepy boss (Roth mainstay and Darkdrive producer Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi) tells him he knows who the culprit is: a psychotic criminal whose consciousness has escaped from the cutting-edge digital prison that Falcon helped design due to a glitch in the system. Patch the glitch, find the killer, and stop the high-tech slammer’s other inmates making the leap… But is everything really as it seems?  

At the centre of Darkdrive is a tremendous bit of kit called The Ex-Isle Chair. It’s a glorious, ornate creation but its mythology is a little muddy and hard to follow — Darkdrive in a nutshell. Supposedly, the chair destroys the bodies of those strapped into it which, in turn, allows them to be uploaded into the penal mainframe… Except when it doesn’t, as is the case with Falcon. Still, irrespective of its hazy and ill-defined capabilities, the device makes for a good enough McGuffin; a memorable and arresting hook from which Roth hangs his expected stylistics, typical tonal mastery, and usual thought-provoking pokes at the nature of human identity. Predating both Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) and The Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), who we are; what we are; what we do; why we do it; how we connect with other people; and, even, life and death itself are the ideas that Roth explores — notions that, if his later thematically similar directorial offering, Outpatient (2001), is anything to go by, consume scripter Carlin as well.

New to the Roth mix are a few excellently done, John Woo-ish gun fights that join his patented spread of exemplary digital FX [1] and subwoofer-shaking explosions — one of which would be interpolated into the title sequence of South Park during the show’s fourth season.

While mounted and credited to Roth, Olandt, Scandiuzzi and James Hollensteiner’s Agate Films, upon completion Darkdrive was repackaged as Roth and Olandt’s first venture under their freshly formed Unified Film Organization banner, when former punk rock and live theatre impresario Scandiuzzi was briefly part of it. Like the bulk of Roth’s output, Darkdrive quickly fell into steady rotation on SyFy. However, in a move wholly befitting of the auteur’s criminally unacknowledged status as DTV’s greatest innovator, it should also be noted that Darkdrive was among the earliest batches of budget DVD releases to hit the U.K. market. The film landed on disc via Marquee Pictures on 20th September 1999 — the same day as their DVD of Carnosaur 3: Primal Species (1996) — priced for the then rock-bottom price of £17.99.

USA ● 1997 ● Sci-Fi, Thriller ● 84mins

Ken Olandt, Claire Stansfield, Julie Benz, Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi ● Dir. Phillip J. Roth (as ‘Phillip Roth’) ● Wri. Alec Carlin

U.K. DVD art courtesy of Videospace

[1] By Roth stalwart Andrew Hofman (Total Reality (1997), Velocity Trap (1999), Storm (1999), Interceptor Force (1999), Escape Under Pressure (2000), Deep Core (2000), Python (2000), Daybreak (2000), Falcon Down (2001)). Hofman’s post-Roth credits include: Beowulf (2004), Hotel Transylvania (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and The Meg (2018).

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