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RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
• Commentary w/ director and cast
• Commentary w/ director and producer
• Storyboard-to-screen comparisons
• Concept artwork
• Deleted scenes
• Bonus digital comic book
• Music video
“It’s like if Gattaca ‘met’ Johnny Mnemonic in the backseat of a car somewhere, found out afterward that they were cousins, and Johnny wanted to keep the baby anyway.”
Bai Ling, Faye Dunaway, Alec Newman, Parry Shen, Robert David Hall.
Computers are the demons of an earlier age. These days we’ve got something brand new to be afraid of: genetic engineering! In The Gene Generation‘s version of the future, an athletic assassin named Michelle (Bai Ling) takes out DNA hackers, whose sole joy in life apparently comes from making tentacles sprout out of the throats of passersby. Also, only people with the correct genetic key can escape the slums of the modern metropolis. And a rogue engineer wants to bring down the corporation he helped build, because it is dabbling in genetic warfare. Finally, Michelle’s brother (Shen) has some gambling debts and is afflicted with a serious case of being a fucking weasel.
I’m having Sierra flashbacks.
No one ever suspects that the future will be a dystopian tapestry of mismatched plot threads.
From the spaghetti mess of the plot summary, it should be pretty clear that The Gene Generation is an unfocused piece of work, to put it kindly. With a premise that takes a protracted voice-over to set up, the first thing the audience should get is a conflict they can relate to, with some anchor for sympathy. Otherwise, the loose setting — barely a dream — carries the whole mess out of reach.
The Gene Generation instead layers paper-thin, and well-worn, plots over each other. Bai Ling does her thing, remorseless. The scientist tirelessly searches for a cure/breakthrough/five-letter word for mentally challenged. The evil villains, sequestered in their lair, search for the scientist. Weaselly brother borrows money from a loan shark. None of it builds a trace of dramatic momentum, and worse, none of the characters are remotely likable.
Except for this dude.
From these bare tracings of established arcs, a unified plot eventually does emerge. I kind of wish it hadn’t bothered, since it’s no more than a “lost package” story. X has Y, and Z needs it back. Let X equal Bai Ling, her brother, and the scientist. Let Y equal a genetically-mutated gauntlet. Let Z equal Faye Dunaway covered in snakes. Let Ian skip to the end of the picture?
I don’t want to dismiss the structure of the plot based solely on its familiarity. It’s a game of Hunt the MacGuffin, and that has obviously worked well in the past, whether the contents of the MacGuffin are known or unknown. Unfortunately, two problems crop up in The Gene Generation‘s handling of this structure:
1) The characters interact with the dynamic range of a recently-mastered pop song, and
2) The story considers the setting such an important component that the MacGuffinGauntlet here actually begs for more background, rather than surviving content as an object of attraction.
I’ll come back to the second point, because I’m still interested in and confused by the choice of setting and its population, but I want to kick the characters around a bit first.
Well, not “kick” so much as… Rhymes-with-“kick”.
The film orbits Bai Ling, of course, but it’s not a stable orbit by any stretch of the imagination. Bai Ling’s character, Michelle, is a killer-for-hire, looking out for her brother while shootin’ dudes in the face. The character is written with the emotional range of a Greek god, by which I mean wide but shallow. Bai Ling seems perfectly suited to the work. Her default brooding expression shifts easily enough to anger or anxiety, but the changes come so quickly (and with such awful pacing) that you know there couldn’t have been much to them in the first place. Centering the film around the relationship dynamic between her and her younger brother Jackie (Shen) fails almost completely to generate sympathy.
A big part of that comes from Jackie being a hopeless douche. He’s not a John Connor, T2-style douche — he’s a full-on, this-is-my-defense-mechanism douche. His section of the plot asks the audience’s sympathy for his choices to a) lose all his money, b) borrow some more money, c) torque off the shark who gives him the loan, and d) inflame the tempers of said shark and his cohorts. Not one line — not one action — of Jackie’s generates any connection with the audience, barring the faint desire to see him get his due.
I was expecting his “due” to be much larger and more spiky.
Put these two characters together, and you have a central relationship devoid of interest, and which drifts into the “annoying” category more often than not. Perhaps realizing this, the writer also included a love interest for Michelle in the form of the scientist, whose altruism has got to be potent enough to interfere with the results of his lab studies. The sad thing is his altruism actually casts him in an evil light, since his deliberate association with the MacGauntlet keeps the chairwoman of his former employer in a constant state of inhuman pain. I couldn’t help but assume he was a jerk, especially since his motivation is explained away quickly by a line condemning his former employer for researching weapons.
I mean, sure I’ve had trouble with my bosses in the past, but I don’t think that leaving them helplessly attached to a wall, covered and partly digested by artificial snakes is exactly the moral way to resolve the conflict.
Coming back to the setting: After thinking about it for a good while, I’m not sure that The Gene Generation actually needed to be a science fiction story. I invoked Gattaca above, but I don’t want to draw any serious parallel between this film and that. Gattaca is a real sci-fi story, a consideration of what the future might be like which depends entirely on the science. The Gene Generation has nothing actually related to plausible genetics, and, even if it did, in no way depends on the presence of such technology. The story is draped in references to DNA hackers, and genetic manipulation, but it all comes down to magic in the end.
Faye Dunaway could be a sorceress in her tower. The scientist guy steals a magic artifact. Jackie gambles too much at the local inn. Bai Ling wears a chainmail bikini and kills hedge wizards for cash. In that setting, the story could be retold without rewriting much of the dialogue, just replacing “artifact” for “transcoder” or whatever the hell technobabble the writer made up. As an action film, it would still work. The story wouldn’t suffer from the transposed setting, and might actually have been more of a fun quest story without the baggage of pretension.
Long ago, people could adopt a “pensive-yet-deadly” stance. The Gauls were early masters.
I’m fine with genre movies of all stripes; it’s the fact that The Gene Generation doesn’t distinguish itself in its stated genre that reduces its value, in my opinion. Even The Matrix films relied on their futuristic setting a little bit.
With lead actors that go exactly as far as the weak script demands, and a core relationship that wobbles so much it needed a third leg to stay upright, I can’t recommend The Gene Generation to anyone other than fans of Bai Ling, weird face paint, and snakey-things. So, anime fans, in other words.
Of the two commentaries provided, the more interesting by far is that with director Pearry Teo and producer Keith Collea. I’ve ragged plenty on the narrative quality of this movie, but I didn’t touch at all on the look. Except for some extraordinarily low-quality CG in places, the aesthetic of the whole thing is quite pretty, in a grungy sort of way. Collea and Teo speak often on the challenges of getting the look on-screen, and also about the well-shot and -choreographed fight sequences. Basically, they highlight those few things I would consider average or above-average in the film. The commentary between Teo and his two leads leans more toward anecdotes, and isn’t particularly lively.
A set of press interviews, a music video by the band Combichrist, and a trailer gallery fill in some cracks with the standard marketing dross. A deleted scene gallery is also included, but forgettable. Storyboard and concept art sections show the unity of vision for the look and feel, and also showcase the awkward computer effects work. Often at the same time.
The last bonus of note is a digital copy of the first issue of The DNA Hacker Chronicles, a comic book series set in the same world as The Gene Generation. It’s about on par with the Coheed and Cambria comics.