Friday, April 4, 2014

Nirvana (1997)

Title: Nirvana (1997)

Director: Gabriele Salvatores

Cast: Christopher Lambert, Diego Abatantuono, Sergio Rubini, Stefania Rocca

Nirvana is a film that’s trying incredibly hard to exist within William Gibson’s seminal Cyber Punk novel, Neuromancer; a novel that’s all about a futuristic world where people live only for the next cyber thrill; sometimes preferring the cyber world to the real world, in Gibson’s novel, the human race is more cyber, than human, people have implants of almost every body part imaginable. Some are willing to do anything to have their worn-out or damaged body parts replaced. So anyhow, this is the sort of picture that Gibson painted in his novel and Nirvana, the film I’ll be reviewing today, is trying very, very hard to exist in that same type of universe, a universe filled with hackers living in a bleak, futuristic world where the information super highway actually brings a sort of relief from the harsh realities of the world the characters inhabit.

In Nirvana Christopher Lambert plays Jimi, a computer programmer who is working on his latest video game called ‘Nirvana’, hence the title of the film. The game is to be released come Christmas time and Jimi is hard at work putting the finishing touches on it. Everything changes when he realizes that one of the characters in the game, a guy called ‘Solo’, becomes self aware. Solo apparently can’t take the fact that he is conscious of his own existence, so he asks Jimi to delete him. Jimi then decides to travel to the head offices of  'Okasama Star' his employer, in order to delete the game from their main system. At the same time, Jimi is trying to deal with the fact that his wife has left him and apparently doesn’t love him, so at the same time, the film is all about Jimi trying to bring closure to the relationship, or rekindle the love that was once there? It’s a film that's very cyberpunk, but at the same time deals with some very human issues.

Nirvana is an Italian film that comes to us from director Gabriele Salvatores, a director best known for having won the best foreign film Oscar in 1991 for Mediterraneo (1991). What’s interesting for me is that Salvatores doesn’t usually direct sci-fi films, his films fall more on the dramatic or comedic side, so it’s interesting to see him tackling a sci-fi film. The thing about sci-fi films is that if you don’t have the budget to create a fictional world convincingly, it always shows. In the case of Nirvana, its budgetary restraints are evident in the cramped sets and small in scope story, but you can still see that the filmmakers tried their best to offer us interesting visuals in spite of their low budget. Salvatores plays with the color palette a lot and gives the film a distinctive feel and look, I enjoyed that. Low budget sci-fi films can end up looking terrible, unfinished and half assed, but when in the hands of a skilled filmmaker, sometimes the film can end up looking better than it should’ve. 

 I love how low budget productions can force filmmakers to play with ideas and push the envelope and in that respect, I thought Nirvana did well. It has many ideas that help establish the futuristic elements.  One scene towards the end in which Jimi and Joystick are running from bad guys through the rooms of a hotel was particularly entertaining, every room they go into offering some crazy ass situation, amusing to say the least. Nirvana was made in the 90’s, when virtual reality was a fairly 'new' concept that Hollywood decided to exploit in films like Freejack (1992) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995), two films that undoubtedly influenced Nirvana because they all play around with that idea of maintaining a consciousness alive through technology. I love how many cyberpunk films involve that visual of putting a helmet over your head and just drifting away into the matrix. The thing with cyberpunk films is that they all go back to that one novel that started it all: William Gibson’s Neuromancer. In one form or another, all of these films owe a lot of what they are to Gibson’s novel. Visually speaking, Nirvana is also reminiscent of Blade Runner (1982), especially when it comes to scenes filled with over crowded streets, neon signs and lots of video billboards.

We can divide Nirvana into two different stories, on the one hand we have Jimi coping with separation anxiety and all the emotional issues that breaking up brings with it, and on the other half we have Jimi trying to infiltrate Okamasama Star’s system to delete Nirvana. Through Solo, the computer character that becomes sentient, the film goes into existential territory which I liked. It’s in these scenes that the film plays with the idea of humans questioning our existence. Why we are here and what’s the meaning of it all? I liked the character of Solo because he is an inquisitive character, representing that small part of humanity that ‘wakes up’ and starts seeing things for what they are. Another element that makes Solo an interesting character is that he speaks with his creator, Jimi. This gives Solo the opportunity to ask his creator all sorts of questions to try and make sense of his existence; essentially assigning the role of God to Jimi the game programmer, the hacker. So the film gets existential, I mean, what would you ask God if you had the chance to talk to him? Interesting part about both characters, Jimi and Solo, is that they are both looking to be at peace with the world around them and with themselves. Will they achieve it? Will they ever achieve Nirvana?

Jimi meets up with some interesting characters throughout his journey; two hackers known as Joystick and Naima. Naima is beautiful and becomes Jimi’s love interest, but Joystick is the coolest one for me, in fact, if you ask me he offers up the liveliest of the performances in the film, even surpassing Lambert, who to be honest comes off as rather bland. But the cool thing about Christopher Lambert is that he projects a naturally likability, so his characters come off as likable as well. Both Joystick and Naima, the characters that aid Jimi on his journey, seem to be taken right of of William Gibson’s Cyberpunk universe. Joystick with his electronic eyes and Naima with her brain implants. I’d say that if you’re in the mood to watch a good cyberpunk film and you don’t mind seeing a film that’s smaller in scope but big on ideas, well, Nirvana is not a bad little film to see.  My recommendation is don’t expect huge action scenes or big special effects, because this is a more personal story, smaller in scope. Also, it’s dubbed, so there’s that. Still, the cyberpunk and sci-fi elements are very strong on this one, which makes it for me a must watch for lovers of cyber punk cinema.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

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