Lionsgate // 2008 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // February 4th, 2009
Death is just an upgrade
In a grimy, dystopian future, mankind lives on the edge of societal breakdown. This rough world is run by the corrupted rich, while the desperate poor do what they can to survive. This includes the theft of people's genetic code, known as "DNA hacking," to fake their identities and allow access into the good life of the city. The first feature film from director Pearry Teo, based on his own comic book, The DNA Hacker Chronicles, The Gene Generation is a high-action, fast-paced thriller that belies its low budget with strong computer effects and a good eye to style.
Mich (Bai Ling, The Crow), a trained assassin who specializes in killing DNA hackers, travels the filthy streets of Olympia hunting her targets. While she tries to save money so she and her brother Jackie (Parry Shen) can leave town and start a new life, Jackie has a gambling problem that is sucking them dry. He gets in trouble with a loan shark so, to pay his debt, breaks into his neighbor's house to find anything worth selling. He takes a strange glove that he can't identify, but is convinced that it's worth a fortune to the right buyer. This glove, treasured by its rightful owner and coveted by his enemies, holds the key to either ending all disease or ending all life, depending on the intentions of the user. Now, Mich must use all her assassination talents to protect her brother as both parties come looking for the prize.
For its budgetary limitations and the experience level of the people behind the camera, The Gene Generation is a spectacular sci-fi thriller. Teo uses everything at his disposal to create an immersive universe full of sex, violence, and grime that make the viewer mostly forget its low budget, independent roots. The story, while often difficult to understand or reason out, is engaging and moves at a fast clip. This pacing kept me from having to ask the important questions of why and how all this is happening until the film is over and, by that time, I had such a good time with the film that those questions aren't all that important. Outside of the norm for tales of dystopia, there is little in the way of social commentary here; what is present has been hashed through in films like Brazil and Metropolis. Still, in using these motifs, Teo gives the action an immediate familiarity without ripping them off.
The performances are campy and fun, but not always very good. However, amidst all the over-acting and flailing, Bai Ling puts in a very solid performance in the lead role. Ling has a fantastic presence, filling the screen while barely speaking a word. At once tough and gorgeous, she is as comfortable kicking butt as in a love scene. She looks great in the myriad of leather outfits and face paint Teo puts her in, is very believable as an assassin, and is the saving grace for the performances in the film.
What really makes The Gene Generation worth watching, however, is the visual style. Taking plenty of nods from the horrific designs of H.R. Geiger, Teo clearly spent much of his budget on the effects and backgrounds. I will say that the backgrounds, nearly all computer generated, look like cinematics from a video game. I don't always care for this style, but Teo does a great job. The city is a menacing villain, walled by impressive gargoyles. Inside the walls, blimps float through the sky relaying news and advertising product to the poor souls on the street. The interiors, bathed in shadow, are industrial and filthy. Mich and Jackie don't live well and are often covered in filth, but their apartment, along with everyone else's, are populated with bizarre, retro-futuristic details that will take multiple viewings to fully appreciate.
Lionsgate, a distributor I have often felt short changes films on DVD, has gone out of their way for The Gene Generation. The transfer is beautiful all around. The film is heavy with shadow, and the blackness is deep and enveloping. The color, though often dingy by design, is fully saturated and looks great against the shadows. The surround mix is even stronger, with good separation in every speaker and clear dialog. The music changes often from a traditional score to the cyberpunk melodies of Combichrist, who perform in the film inside an arena that looks remarkably like Nine Inch Nails's video for "Head Like a Hole." These changes work seamlessly, with the score never too soft and the punk never overpowering. It is a very good surround mix. They've filled the disc with extras, starting with two commentaries. The first, with Teo, Ling, and Shen, is the more enjoyable of the two. They tell stories from the filming and generally sound like they're having a great time together talking about how best to eat pig intestines and keeping the shot where people get punched and kicked for real. The second, with Teo and producer Keith Collea, is more clinical. It probably would have been more enjoyable had I listened to that one first; Teo tends to repeat himself between the two audio tracks. The deleted scenes, amounting to around twenty minutes, give further information and more setting. Their inclusion is interesting because they are unfinished scenes. There's nothing that takes away that movie magic like a bunch of actors in front of a green background. The interviews and storyboard comparisons are nothing special, though the inclusion of the first edition comic that the film was based from is a very nice touch, giving further back story and showing where much of the visual aesthetic comes from. Lionsgate has done an excellent job with this independent gem.
The Gene Generation falters in only one aspect. There isn't even the most basic explanation of what happened to make the world this way. This problem certainly isn't fatal, this is wild ride with or without explanation, but given the dystopian landscape, a reason behind it all would have helped keep the story cohesive. Because the science goes unexplained, it becomes necessary to take it with a grain of salt to enjoy the great imagery and fun-loving spirit of the film.
The Gene Generation is a pleasant surprise. It features a great dingy but detailed look and fun performances by actors who never take themselves too seriously. This is a quick 96 minutes; one that I'll be happy to watch over again.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* Storyboard Comparisons
* Concept Art Gallery
* Music Video
* Digital Comic Book