For a lot of movies, this title would be ironic, thinks Judge Adam Arseneau.
In the end, he sees everything.
Chilling, thought-provoking, and ambitious, The Final Cut has all the makings of a classic science-fiction thriller: a taut, intense and compelling Orwellian story line; an all-star cast of Oscar-nominated actors; and slick production values and special effects. Definitely a film destined for success, wouldn't you agree?
Unfortunately, nobody actually told these things to either critics or audiences, because the film was universally panned, ignored by the masses at large, and never received anything remotely resembling a wide theatrical release. Now on DVD, will it attract the people who were curious to see it, but who gave it a pass at the box office? Like I was?
At the very least, it features Jesus Christ chasing Robin Williams around with a gun. That is not a typo.
Facts of the Case
In the future, immortality is sold to the public at large in the form of memory implant chips by Eyetech Industries. With a Zoe chip installed at birth, every experience is recorded and stored with perfect clarity. After a person dies, the experiences of an entire lifetime can be restored and edited into a "Rememory," a video eulogy of a person's life.
Alan Hakman (Robin Williams) is a "cutter," a man solely responsible for the review, cataloging, editing, and condensing of a person's memories after he or she dies. The editing decisions made by such cutters condense a person's entire life into two hours, affecting their will on the collective memories of family and friends. Cutters decide what is remembered about a person, and as such, usually take out the bad bits. Alan has a knack in the industry for handling the clients that other cutters are too squeamish to take. Pallid and morose, he has the perspicacity of a dead fish and the energy of a funeral director, and is nonplussed by even the most horrific dark secrets of a person's life.
A cutter lives by three rules: He cannot sell or give away Zoe footage. He cannot have his own Zoe implant. He cannot mix Zoe footage from different lives for a Rememory. Alan takes these rules very seriously, and is widely regarded as the best cutter in the business—or at least, the most infamous. However, being a cutter is fast becoming a dangerous profession. Waves of anti-Zoe protestors keep springing up out of nowhere, covered in tribal tattoo markings, demanding the chips be abolished for violating freedom of expression and privacy, and irrevocably affecting social patterns and structures. After all, if you knew you everything you said and did would be recorded forever, how would you behave?
After a colleague passes Alan a particularly insidious case, a man by the name of Charles Bannister, Alan is visited by a rogue cutter named Fletcher (James Caviezel, The Passion Of The Christ, hence the "Jesus" joke), who is rumored to be working with the anti-Zoe movement. He offers to buy Bannister's memories for a half-million dollars in cash, but Alan refuses Fletcher outright out of principle. Fletcher seems to have an inkling of the sensitive and controversial nature of Bannister's memories, and airing them publicly would be a massive blow against Eyetech Industries.
As Fletcher increases his pressure on Alan to part with the memories, by hook or by crook, Alan discovers something shocking and personal hidden deep inside Bannister's memories—something linked to a traumatic event in Alan's own past. Despite the growing personal danger to his person, Hakman embarks deep into Bannister's memories, searching the man's past for a clue to his own nightmares…
The Final Cut excels at bringing up interesting issue after interesting issue, followed by compelling social puzzles, and rounded off with a few head-scratching questions. Consider the dramatic and sweeping social changes brought on by such a technological implementation like the Zoe memory chip. Think about it: If you knew that everything you did, every single moment of your life, was being recorded from your point of view, to live on through the ages, would you behave differently? Would you react to decisions differently? Would you act differently? Nicer? Become a different person? What are the social and psychological implications of having your life recorded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until you die? Would this not completely destructure and reconfigure our social interactions with one another on a species-wide level?
As mentioned, this and dozens of other interesting and compelling issues are briefly touched upon in the film, but sadly, only as afterthoughts. As a protagonist, Hakman is far too concerned with his own memories, his own demons, to allow the film to linger on any other subject. This kind of thing happens often in The Final Cut, and can hardly be helped. The film is so densely layered with intriguing and fascinating tidbits of dialogue, technology, philosophy, and Orwellian ideology that it cannot possibly dedicate enough time to the problems it brings up. This is the double-edged sword of all ambitious movies, for without the intriguing elements in place, the film would feel bare and weak, but not addressing each element fully brings consequences of its own. Rare are the films that actually manage to achieve equilibrium between the two elements; most fail despite their lofty ambitions. Take Equilibrium, for ironic example, another ambitious-yet-strangely-dissatisfying film.
As intriguing as The Final Cut is in an intellectual level, the film often has a difficult time connecting emotionally with the viewer, appealing to mental fascination rather than an emotional resonance. There are two elements of the story: Hakman's own tragic and troubled past, and the events currently taking place in the present day. The two arcs eventually converge and become synonymous with one another, but for the majority of the film, the emotional elements cannot compete with the intellectual ones.
Robin Williams brings an exceptional performance to the role of Alan Hakman—a shyer, meeker, and less creepy extension of his work in Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo. It has been said that there is nothing sadder than a sad Robin Williams, but in The Final Cut, most of the personal agony simply falls to the roadside, not out of poor execution or acting on his part, but simply because there are too many interesting things going on to pay any attention to the weaker human element of the film. Williams does a fantastic job, but the subject matter simply outshines his ample emotional range.
On paper, this film has everything necessary to be a blockbuster hit. In practice, critics and the public at large panned it unceremoniously. Part of the problem was the lack of promotion and push on the part of the distributors, but part stems from fundamental issues with the film itself. This film has the "first film" disease that often plagues new directors' first productions—it tries to do numerous things simultaneously, and ends up mastering none. The film is so burdened with questions of morality, privacy, and immortality that all the other elements that make good films good—romantic entanglement, plot, and substance—feel…weaker. Not bad, mind you, just weaker.
Overall, the film is well-acted, well-directed, and well-written, and even though it fails outright, it goes out of its way to appeal to the emotional range by passing itself off as memory, warm and organic. Even the guillotine editing terminal Hakman uses is constructed out of hand-carved wood; the future depicted in The Final Cut is a future obsessed with nostalgia and memory, and steeped in the comforting and the familiar. The fact that the movie totally fails to connect emotionally with its audience, outside of the stated irony, is its only real flaw. If that kind of thing doesn't bother you, and you wish to have your intellectual curiosity tickled by a fascinating sci-fi thriller, you will walk away from The Final Cut as pleased as punch.
On the technical side, Lions Gate pulled no punches bringing The Final Cut to DVD. The transfer is sleek, with deep black levels, and nary a scratch, imperfection, or defect to be seen. This is a wonderful-looking film, with expert cinematography by skilled artisan Tak Fujimoto, a perfect balance between sharp detail and warm softness, with nice organic color tones. The packaging and my own eye seem to have some discrepancies as to the proper aspect ratio of this film; the packaging claims the film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio, but to my eye, it has then been cropped down to the actual aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Edges stay perfect even upon closer magnification, and I could see no examples of enhancement or anti-aliasing.
The entire DVD is done up as a "promotional tool" designed to sell the fictional Zoe implant to a family. The menu hierarchy is structured like a product information guide, while a narrator goes over the salient points of immortality and advantages of the implant. It even contains a phony product disclaimer screen in the same fashion of FBI copyright warnings. The navigation is kitschy enough to be entertaining, but not obnoxious enough to interfere with loading time or efficient menu traversing.
There are two audio modes to choose from, a Dolby Surround 5.1 track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Both sound very similar, with clean dialogue, a pleasing atmospheric score, and excellent use of environmental noises. Bass response was weaker than I expected it to be, but the mix still sounds balanced. The 5.1 Surround track does a great job of distributing noises to the channels, though the front speakers get most of the excitement. The tracks could have used more oomph from the subwoofers, but still an excellent presentation.
For a film with such a quiet release, Lions Gate does a great job trotting out the extra material. A full-length director's commentary is included, in which director Omar Naim gushes about the film at great length, from its initial conception and funding to its luring of star power, to its production. Naim is obviously thrilled to be recording a commentary track on his first film ever, so it makes for a decent listen. A making-of featurette clocking in just under 30 minutes discusses with cast and crew the salient points of production. Also appearing are a production design featurette, a special effects featurette, and a storyboard-to-final-footage comparison sequence. When accompanied with the commentary track, these extras cover every angle of production from script to casting to production to development. It is a very satisfying set of extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Story, story, story…story brings The Final Cut down in the end. As cool as the social implications and ethical questions are, when you break the film down to its fundamental core, it secretly desires to be a silly sci-fi chase film (corroborated by the absurd Robin Williams mid-stride action hero pose on the back cover). This mindset seems totally at odds with the film's Gattaca-esque level of oblique and icy intellectual coolness.
The film holds it together with class and grace until the last ten minutes, where it can no longer resist the pressure of succumbing to chase-sequence clichés and twist endings that plague the B-class sci-fi thriller genre. Had the film managed to avoid such temptations, it might have graduated into the A-class, but alas, such is life. Though making perfect conceptual sense, and though the story has diligently led up to it, I found the ending is wholly unsatisfactory. Had the editor cut the last ten minutes of the film away, the film would have been much more pleasing—less plausible and less exciting, admittedly, but definitely a better film.
The Final Cut plays clean and neatly from start to finish, and while it may fall just short of playing in the big-leagues, it is certainly strong enough to step in as a substitute any day of the week. Its flaws are cosmetically covered up by the sheer intellectual interest the film provides; as science-fiction goes, this is pretty good stuff—compelling, fascinating and laden with poignant social and political implications about our own society. It also doesn't hurt that Lions Gate treated this DVD as a big-league title, giving it the most complete presentation possible for a single-disc title, with excellent audio and video quality and decent extras.
Definitely not guilty, though the film loses a point or two for christening the protagonist with a first-year screenwriting character name like "Alan Hakman." Clever, guys.
What, don't you get it? He's an editor, and "hack" is a synonym of "cut," and—oh, forget it.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Omar Naim
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