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Hipster Holy Grail: Anna to the Infinite Power (1982)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:

Anna to the Infinite Power is an interesting, albeit deeply-flawed science-fiction film.  On one hand, it's rough around the edges and has some schlocky acting.  On the other hand, it's got a fair amount of depth for what is essentially a kid's movie and explores some fascinating subject matter.  With a bigger budget and a more evenly-paced script, this would have been a classic.  As it stands, I'm conflicted for a final rating.  I want to put it higher despite its flaws.  So in keeping with the film's geeky math themes, I'm giving this an incredibly precise rating equivalent to a 2.9 out of 4.

My Rating:  3.625 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

Anna Hart (Martha Byrne, pre-As the World Turns) is a troubled preteen in a small town.  She lies, she cheats, she steals, she's completely self-absorbed and amoral.  But perhaps worst of all - gasp - she's not doing well at her piano lessons.  I'm exaggerating, of course, but this is basically our introduction to the protagonist of the strange movie that is Anna to the Infinite Power.

The movie is ultimately a family story, so let's meet the other Harts:  Anna's mother, Sarah (Dina Merrill), is a successful scientist-type who does nebulous research for a living.  Her father, Graham (Jack Ryland), is an orchestral musician.  Her older brother, Rowan (Mark Patton), is possibly a musical prodigy and an aspiring violinist.

Anna herself is a genius; she's enrolled at a school for the gifted where she excels in a math/science-heavy curriculum.  Sarah is thrilled since it means that Anna will be following in her footsteps as another ambiguous Dr. Science type.  Graham and Anna's teachers, on the other hand, are a little bit concerned that Anna's behavioral problems will get worse unless she challenges herself with a broader curriculum and more of a focus on the arts.  In other words, she needs more soul in her studies.

While this is going on, the Harts get a new next-door neighbor: the mysterious Michaela (Donna Mitchell), a pianist who owns one of the worst wardrobes in film history.  Michaela is immediately suspicious; in addition to leering at Anna strangely, she also carries a dossier with photos of other girls named Anna who look identical to our protagonist.

One night, Anna catches a news report that coincidentally features one of these girls: Anna Smithson, another preteen whose mother is a scientist and whose father is a musician.  After learning about the Smithsons, Anna decides that the similarities are too eerie to leave alone.  Does she have a twin?  Was she adopted?  What's going on?  She bugs Rowan to drive her to Philadelphia so she can find out.

Once they get there, though, they are shooed away by Dr. Smithson and then chased down by a cropduster.  It seems there is a conspiracy afoot....

This is all in the first 15-20 minutes and it's an effective start to the movie.  It's gripping and easily draws you in to the idea that there's a big secret waiting to be discovered.  But in case you're worried that the movie might have too much suspense, Sarah decides to explain the plot:

Back in the 1960s, there was a brilliant physicist named Anna Zimmerman who was working on a matter replicator.  She was just about to make a breakthrough in her research when she suddenly died.  Had Zimmerman finished her work, she would have revolutionized history and ended world hunger.  Not wanting to let the opportunity wither away, a coalition of scientists got together and formed a wide-reaching plot: they cloned Zimmerman countless times and sent the various Annas off to different parts of the country, where they would all be forced to study math and science until one day Zimmerman herself could be reborn.

Reactions to this truth are mixed.  Anna has a renewed sense of purpose and vanity in her academic pursuits.  But Graham and Rowan both find it a wedge - to them, Anna is a freak and a miscreant.  And she's certainly not a member of their family.

For awhile, things get tense.  But eventually they just come to accept that, despite her mysterious origins, Anna is still a part of the family.  Anna, too, is undergoing a change of heart.  She has ramped up her artistic studies and her behavioral problems are disappearing.

Unfortunately, just then the scientist in charge of the Anna project, Dr. Jelliff (Jack Gilford), demands that she be brought to an experimental facility where they can conduct various tests on her.  Ostensibly these tests are meant to check on her health, but it's clear that there is a more nefarious purpose at work.

I'd really love to tell you all about the last ten minutes or so of the movie, but those are some of the best parts and I don't want to spoil it.  So I'll keep this plot description spoiler-free and move on to some of the things that didn't work so well.

The Bit Wherein I Complain

This is a movie about cloning, and you can read more about how I feel about movie-brand cloning elsewhere.  As usual, AIP gets it wrong; Anna manages to get Zimmerman's memories along with her DNA, which is outright impossible.  But despite what my other post might lead you to believe, I'm not actually a dickhead.  I just pretend to be one on the Internet.  I can go along with the silly not-science of this science-fiction movie in order for the premise to go on.

The bigger problem is the acting.  Everybody speaks with the over-blown cadence of a high school play.  You tend to accept that sort of thing when you're watching a kid's movie - I guess most directors assume kids are idiots and they need every word to be spoon-fed to them at three times the emotional level necessary.  I forgive AIP, but it's still annoying.

Another complaint, since I'm already being a negative asshat: the editing isn't as sharp as it could be.  There are more than a few awkward scene transitions and at least one jump-cut that completely fails to get across that three-or-so days have passed.

But the Grail isn't about complaining, so let me end this bit with something less complainy and more observey: the pacing is bizarre.  The movie switches momentum at least three different times, giving you a distinct four-piece movie.  The first 15 minutes or so are a low-key thriller / mystery about suspicious going-ons involving Anna and her clones.  The next 30 minutes slow way down into a drama exploring the dissolution of a family unit, then the next 30 minutes are an upbeat exploration of self-improvement, and then it finally concludes with 30 minutes of ominous quasi-horror when the kids go to Jelliff's lab.  I don't think this is necessarily a problem, but it does feel uneven.

The Bit Wherein I Talk About Cross-Generational Attitudes

Watching this movie in 2014 as a dude who came of age in the '90s / '00s, I noticed a lot of strange attitudes toward personal ability, self-esteem, education, and science.  It's an incredible time capsule of an era in American history when the fun, golden hues of 1970s self-love were warping into the cold, competitive neon blaze of the 1980s.  Sorry, I'm getting too artsy.  What I mean is: these people talks funny.

First, let's take a look at the science/art dichotomy that is brought up.  AIP's overall message is that people should be free to explore life on their own terms rather than clinging to a predetermined curriculum.  This is tinged with a slight distaste for science - or at least a less-than-flattering perception.  Eventually Anna gives up on math and science for the sake of music and starts to fail her classes; this is portrayed as a good thing.

Today this would be nothing short of a tragedy.  You have a young woman who enjoys math and science and the happy ending is that she fails at them?  Why not just have her marry a rich sugar daddy and complain about how thinking gives her headaches while you're at it?

Taken out of context, it seems bad, but I suspect this is actually the result of several changing attitudes.  The original novel's writer, Mildred Ames, was born in 1919 and wrote AIP in 1981.  That means she would have been fully cognizant of the rise and peak of the Cold War, which is what prompted a greater focus on math and science in our public schools in the 1950s and '60s.  This attitude - a concentration on facts, statistics, and calculated process - fed directly into the beatnik and hippie countercultures that later gave rise to the Me Generation of the '70s, which specifically rejected the concept of a STEM-based curriculum and pushed for a more holistic, liberal arts approach.  The '80s saw a perpetuation of the liberal arts-styled curriculum, but that was when things came to a head and everybody suddenly started to give a shit about Education when the cameras were rolling, so you ended up with politicians complaining about American ethics and ideals versus the "liberal agenda" of a rounded curriculum.

Then the '90s hit and it seems like nothing really changed, but everybody got a hell of a lot more cynical.

So here I am now in the 2010s watching this movie and feeling put off by the protagonist's dismissal of STEM subjects, but for completely different reasons than the proponents of the curriculum would have had back when the story was originally written.  The wheel of time turns in strange ways.

Another strange thing is the way people address Anna's relative talents and skills.  There's a scene where Michaela plays Beethoven for the Harts.  Anna's father suggests that she teach Anna since she plays so beautifully.  He then goes on to openly mock Anna's abilities and put down her piano skills.

I guess this could speak to a larger generational difference, but the idea of a parent speaking about the relative shittiness of their kid directly in front of them is so... foreign.  I know it's a thing that used to happen more often - and still happens in some families - but I guess I was raised on too rich a diet of self-esteem and praise to believe it.  Seriously, dude.  Anna's pretty good at the piano.  She can improve, sure, but are you really going to call her out right after a nice family dinner?  Aren't you supposed to be the good guy?

This reminds me... I am once again going to invoke my old standby of calling out arrogant old people who assume my generation's arrogance is somehow disproportionate by pointing out that this 30-year old movie features one of the most arrogant little shits ever.  Anna is egocentric to an extreme that most movies are afraid to explore - to the point that she fully believes she is destined to save the planet.  The movie refreshingly makes no judgment as to parenting styles that may have contributed to her brattiness.  Instead they treat it as more of a rite of passage and Anna just naturally grows out of it.

(It's almost like being full of yourself is just a thing that people do because they're immature and they usually grow out of it once they start taking on responsibilities... as if maybe, just maybe, everybody who keeps complaining about Millennials is a damn hypocrite?  Huh.  Imagine that.  Oh, what's that?  This big blocky thing?  Why, yes, it is my soapbox.  Quite nice, don't you think?  Would you like to touch?)

[Going to have to go into a bracketical to my parenthetical to ask: would it be dirty if I asked people to "touch my soapbox?"  Because I'd like to make that a thing, but I'm worried I'll just get slapped.  Try it out next time you're getting self-righteous and let me know the results.]

The Bit Wherein I Conclude the Review by Talking About a Douchebag

Ending my reviews is always hard because I put my rating at the top, so a lot of times I'm not sure what else to say.  But this week I've got a solid memory I wanted to write about.  I hesitate to call it an "anecdote" because those usually have a point.

Anyway.  Back when I was teaching high school English and I hated myself, I had one student in particular who was more of a dick than the others.  I should probably try to protect his anonymity, but what the hell?  The kid was an asshole.  His name was Peter.  (You know who you are.)

Peter's probably not so bad now that he's an adult (I hope), but back then he was just some sixteen year-old punk who knew everything.  I was also a cock at that age, but even then I knew the same thing that the vast majority of my students also knew: there's no real point to openly antagonizing your teachers.

Peter didn't get that memo.

One of his favorite pastimes in my class - other than openly ignoring me and talking loudly to his friends while I failed his ass - was to ask me deeply personal questions in the hope that I would... I dunno, piss my pants in terror because I didn't have a good answer?  "Hey, Mr. C!  Did ya ever do any drugs?"  Or maybe, "How often do you have sex?"  Or something like, "Have you ever really lived, man?"  As if I would be able to gain any wisdom about living from some frat boy wannabe.

I think this fucker was trying to wave his dick around and be a bully, but it doesn't work that way, Peter.  I get paid to be here.  You don't.  I get to give you an F because you didn't do shit the entire year, and I will go home and laugh about it.  Meanwhile you'll just be angry and dumb.

Whoa, sorry.  Got carried away there.  Maybe I have some unresolved anger issues about that time of my life.  I should talk about that some other time.

Anyway, one day Peter asked me out of the blue, "Mr. C!  Are you for or against cloning?"

I remember being utterly confused.  It wasn't that the question was random - he always asked whatever stupid thing was on his mind.  It wasn't that he was disrupting the class - that particular class was by far the worst assemblage of kids I ever had to deal with and was always disruptive.  It wasn't that I found the question offensive - cloning is a topic I don't mind at all discussing, and quite frankly, it was likely to give me more of a sense of fulfillment than anything else in that class.

It was more that I just couldn't figure out what the actual question was.  "Are you for or against cloning?"  It's like asking if you're for or against mitosis.  Cloning as a concept isn't something that you actually can have a value judgment about.  (Eventually I figured out that he was trying to get me to feed him into squawking some Limbaughean piece about whether or not we should allow human cloning.  Peter's against it, FTR.)

Anna to the Infinite Power made me think a lot about Peter.  There's just something about a cocky little brat who doesn't approve of cloning that brings memories of him to the surface.  I guess I really appreciated this movie on another level because it filled Anna with an existential mortal dread, which was all I ever hoped for Peter.  Trust me, pal.  It's good for you.

If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch the movie for free on Instant Video.  Alternately, if you don't mind foreign subtitles, you can check it out on Youtube.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'll give it 20 points for obscurity, since it has under 400 IMDB ratings as of today, plus 10 points for the cast overall.  It's not exactly a cast of "unknowns," but the lead is a before-she-was-semi-famous soap star, so... that's got at least some ironic value.

I'll also give it a light recommendation bonus of 15 points, and another 5 points for having nonsense science.  And what the hell, let's give it 5 more points for a nostalgia bonus.  Not that I have any nostalgia for it; it was made before I was born.  But this movie definitely has an "I think I saw this on TV when I was six and never knew the name of it" vibe.

That adds up to a total of 55 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Kinda mediocre, but then again, hipster cred and quality don't always go hand in hand.