Total Reality (1997): Crimes of the Future

Matty shines a light on one of Phillip J. Roth’s finest offerings.

The first UFO production to be branded up front with their insignia, TOTAL REALITY also ranks alongside Digital Man (1995) as one of Phillip J. Roth’s best. A science fiction riff on The Dirty Dozen (1967) with bits of Star Wars (1977), Trancers (1984), The Terminator (1984), Timecop (1994), and Escape From New York (1981) thrown in, UFO co-founder Ken Olandt details the thrust of the film’s plot in his supporting role as a nasty military commander: 

Beginning two-hundred years in the future after an epic, two-decades long war between two opposing political sects — the totalitarian Bridgists and a dwindling pocket of rebels — has ravaged Earth, a disillusioned rebel captain (David Bradley) — imprisoned following a skirmish that resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians — is strong-armed into leading a suicide squad of similarly disgraced grunts back to 1998 in order to capture a pair of time-travelling Bridgist higher-ups due to stand trial for war crimes.

Unspooling like a greatest hits package, Total Reality finds Roth cherry-picking all that worked in his preceding films; from the notions of dualism and duality in A.P.E.X. (1994) and Darkdrive (1997), to the fascination with splintered timelines and how manner, mood, and craft can represent such chronological division on screen. Indeed, tech-wise, Total Reality is another marvel. The CGI and VFX (by Rich Helvey and Roth regulars David Wainstain and Andrew Hofman) are as brilliant as always, and David Huang’s future-shock production design boasts a beautiful tactility [1]. However, as with Digital Man and Darkdrive, Total Reality’s most striking aesthetic touches are the ways in which Roth and cinematographer Andres Garreton (their second and final pairing following Darkdrive) blend and contrast styles, juxtaposing the mood-driven passages that take place in 2198 with the greenery and wet-slicked streets of Roth’s hometown, Portland, during the chunks set in 1998 [2].  

Though as light as you’d expect in terms of characterisation (a perverse auteur flourish considering how preoccupied Roth is with understanding the intricacies of human identity — but then maybe that’s why?), Roth and Robert Tossberg’s generally well-rounded script draws a thought provoking parallel between the fascist Bridgists and the questionable rebel faction, suggesting that both sides are ultimately as corrupt and destructive as each other.

There’s also a welcome sense of humour to Total Reality, which runs the gamut from laconic and satirical, to enjoyably silly and meta: when Bradley arrives in 1998, a funny yet chillingly plausible development rests upon a huckster motivational speaker whose cheesy self-help book turns out to be the basis of the Bridgists’ tyrannical manifesto; Roth stalwart Marcus Aurelius pops up as one half of an amusing Mulder and Scully lampoon; and several slyly delivered lines can be interpreted as Roth poking fun at his action-heavy approach to filmmaking. As Ely Pouget’s Sarah Connor analogue says, “Everywhere you go things blow up.”

USA ● 1997 ● Sci-Fi, Action ● 93mins

David Bradley, Ely Pouget, Thomas Kretschmann ● Dir. Phillip J. Roth (as ‘Phillip Roth’) ● Wri. Phillip J. Roth and Robert Tossberg (as ‘Rob Trenton’), from a story by Phillip J. Roth

[1] Post Total Reality, Huang became a staple at UFO and provided his services for Velocity Trap (1999), Interceptor Force (1999), Python (2000), and Epoch (2001) among others.
[2] The historic Hawthorne Bridge — the oldest vertical-lift bridge in operation in the United States, and the oldest highway bridge in Portland — makes an appearance in the film’s last act.

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