Australian film-maker Ivan Sen’s sci-fi Loveland asks some very Philip K Dickian questions, about the nature of consciousness and posthuman evolution. Ryan Kwanten is Jack, a dead-eyed hitman who – like so many screen assassins before him – is glum and self-hating but yearns for something greater. His backstory justifies his emotional emptiness, though this does little to warm the audience to an unsympathetic lead, played with bleary-eyed moroseness.
Films led by similar characters often use a love interest with distinct vulnerabilities to soften the hatched man’s misanthropy: like the woman hurt by Chow Yun-fat’s assassin in John Woo’s classic The Killer, fated to go blind without an operation, or the deaf-mute pharmacist Nicolas Cage dates in Bangkok Dangerous. In the wrong hands this sort of pairing serves a crude message: assassins have emotional needs too!
There is an element of that in Loveland, when Sen introduces April (Jillian Nguyen), a singer Jack meets in a sleazy venue with the vibes of a brothel crossed with a karaoke bar. Picking her from a lineup of women, April performs for Jack from behind a one-way window, and the pair subsequently 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, appears to make him ill for weird science fiction-y reasons – and perhaps terminally so. In comes Dr Bergman, an enigmatic scientist played with gravitas by the ever-reliable Hugo Weaving, to figure out what is happening.
Loveland is handsomely shot, continuing a collection of visually interesting productions from Sen, who serves as cinematographer, editor and composer. The film is set in a near future Hong Kong, though it feels more like an alternative present, with little obvious visual embellishment jazzing up the already futuristic looking city.
This world is dotted with robot-like creations, posing familiar questions about the extent to which humans and machines are merging. At one point Jack asks: “Are they becoming more like us? Or are we becoming the machine?” This use of machines to consider human identity in increasingly virtual and digitialised societies has been explored so extensively that perhaps it’s time for sci-fi to move on.
Literary critic N Katherine Hayles famously argued (more than 20 years ago) that people have already evolved into a posthuman state, the posthuman perspective privileging information over material forms in order to view biological embodiment as “an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life”. If that sounds a little heavy, wait until you hear the dialogue and narration in Loveland, which is weighty and ponderous from the beginning, but becomes jarringly so as the running time progresses. Or perhaps its heavy handedness just becomes more obvious when there is more of it: Jack is the narrator, then April gets a voiceover too – and so does Dr Bergman.
This trio sure lays it on thick, countering gentle mysteries with writing seemingly devoted to violating the old “show don’t tell” dictum: expect lines such as, “What do you pray for, in the darkness?” and “No reason will sustain itself until dawn.” It’s almost impossible to make writing like this sound natural, so Sen aspires for a kind of heightened realism, somber and poetic – which is difficult to pull off without coming across as a bit tin-eared.
Sen delivered weighty ponderousness much better in his outback noir Goldstone, another production that takes familiar genre mechanisms and slows them right down. In Loveland, the dialogue and narration is so full on that it becomes almost fourth wall-breaking in its artifice, pulling the viewer out of the experience by reminding us of the film-making (in particular the writing) process. This unquestionably ambitious film works best as a mood piece: it’s big, bold, cerebral and intensely unsubtle.