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Hipster Holy Grail: Venus Rising (1995)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Despite not having a large cast or even all that complicated a plot, Venus Rising confused the hell out of me. It's a classic case of "good idea, bad execution," and I don't think I can recommend it to anyone.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The movie opens with the somehow-even-lazier-than-a-text-crawl exposition device: a series of title cards.  Seems that at some point in The Future, there was a private prison ("K314") owned by the Pacifica Corporation built on an island not far away from one of their major resorts.  The owners of Pacifica decided to pull their staff out and abandon the prisoners for whatever reason - I guess they've never seen a movie before and don't see the risk of an unsupervised supermax three miles away from their loosely guarded hotels.

Anyway, K314's been like that for a decade or so and things have gotten super shitty. Food shortages and violence are a daily way of life for those who have survived this long, yet somehow, few prisoners have ever escaped.  I think the implication is supposed to be that the prisoners have cybernetic implants that act as a combination neurotoxin / tracking device, so they can easily kill or capture anybody who tries to leave.  But only one prisoner seems to have an implant, and the toxin part of it only seems to go off by accident.

We open with two survivors: Eve (Audie England) and Vegas (Costas Mandylor). They're hunkered down somewhere quiet, trying to avoid any confrontations and get by.  Vegas goes exploring on the shore and comes across what seems to be a lifeboat with an unfortunate sailor who just survived a completely different movie.  Vegas kills the sailor, then steals a case of supplies from the boat and brings it back to his hidey-hole.

Eve and Vegas split a can of food from inside the case.  While they're gobbling it down, a random orphan kid shows up and stares at them.  The (possibly mute) orphan sets down a knife, ostensibly to trade it, and Eve cautiously goes to make the swap.  As soon as she has the knife in her hand, a prisoner shows up out of nowhere and takes Eve as a hostage.  He demands that Vegas show him where he found the supply case, and moments later all three of them are hopping on board the life boat and pushing out to sea.

We cut away from that thrilling escape sequence to a fancy Pacifica Corporation office, where Wyndham (Ivory Ocean), the company's Security Chief, gets an alert on his computer.  The arbitrary prisoner's implant has triggered an automatic warning, and a heat sensor built into it lets Wyndham know that there are two other people nearby.

In short order, Wyndham pays a visit to Nick (Billy Wirth), another convict, and cuts a deal.  If Nick helps him find and recapture the escapees, then Wyndham will commute his sentence.  Somehow.  I think the idea is that Wyndham has sway over the cops and can get them to bend to his will, and he wants to keep the whole "escaped prisoners near our vacation spot" thing under wraps.  The best way to do that then is to hire somebody whose testimony would be easily dismissed if they ever said anything.  Seems a bit overboard to me to ask a prisoner to help, but oh well, fine, let's have a movie.

This next part is a little hazy for me.  The lifeboat makes it to shore, but the next time we cut back, Vegas has gone missing.   I can't tell if Eve fell asleep and he left by the time she woke up, or if he fell out of the boat and they got separated, or what the deal is.  Whatever the case may be, Eve finds herself alone with that other prisoner, who decides that now is the best time to get his rape on.  So, he tries to pin her down, and Eve starts punching at his cybernetic implant, which malfunctions and shoots him full of that neurotoxin I mentioned earlier.  The prisoner dies, and Eve is all alone.

She goes off in search of Vegas and/or a new life.  As soon as she can, she breaks into somebody's house and steals some fresh clothes.  While wandering the beach the next day, she bumps into a creepy old tourist who realizes she's homeless and asks if she's up for any prostitution.  Cut to a secluded spot under a pier - they've just finished having sex, and Eve is demanding her money.  The tourist is being creepy and stubborn about it, and he also decides he'd like to get his rape on... so Eve stabs him four or five times in the ribcage, then steals his wallet and leaves.

Two attempted rapes and self-defense killings in a matter of ten minutes.  Really, Venus Rising?

There's a moment later where Eve and Nick briefly cross paths, and Nick - thinking she's homeless and not realizing that she's one of the people he's supposed to be tracking down - gives her some cash.  Then Eve wanders some more, until eventually she is spotted by Maria (Meredith Salenger).

Maria is a wealthy woman - or at least, a woman who likes to pretend she's wealthy - living in a seaside apartment building and wasting away her life on drugs and frivolity.  Her favorite hobby is taking pills out of a weird little metronome-like device; you tell it how you want to feel, and it spits out a pill that'll alter your brain accordingly.  Maria carries that thing around like it's fused to her wrist, which kinda makes sense when you realize it's one of only two things that define her character.

Maria sees Eve from afar and immediately develops some kind of psychotic power trip / lesbian crush on her.  She rushes out of her apartment and invites Eve to come live with her, then starts fawning over her and programming a facsimile of her into a VR sex machine that she casually whips out after Eve goes to bed.  The VR machine is basically the heart of the movie, as we'll soon see - essentially it's just Second Life, but fully immersive.  You design your avatar and then you go wandering into chat rooms to interact with other people's avatars.

Anyway.  The movie doesn't spend a lot of time looking into Maria's fascination with Eve.  The best I can interpret is that she's the type of person who always gets what she wants, and she really wants Eve.  To be fair, there's never any explicit mention of sexual attraction, so I may be reading too much into it.  Still.  Maria has a VR program that let's her choose her appearance when she goes wandering into Cybersex Land, and she chooses to look like a random homeless woman she basically stole into her apartment.  That can't be good.

Then Maria jumps off a cliff.

Y'know what, Venus Rising, fine.  Make her commit suicide.  Sure.  That makes about as much sense as any other character choice we've seen so far.

Eve despairs about Maria for about five minutes and then decides to assume her identity.  She then befriends... somebody.  A neighbor, maybe?  I'm not even sure of the guy's name, but basically, there's a friendly dude who quickly develops a sort of fatherly/brotherly relationship with her.  And then he moves into MariaEve's apartment. It's given very little fanfare and basically he just serves as a plot device to teach MariaEve about money and jobs so she knows how to function.  Consequently, MariaEve goes to a nearby bar and gets a job as a waitress.

And now that there's finally some semblance of a plot, Venus Rising hits a brick wall.  The next forty minutes or so are basically just one repetitive slog in which the following things happen on loop:

- MariaEve logs into that VR thing and programs herself to look like a Venus-inspired redhead, then has repeated cybersex with Nick, who has made himself look like a blue-suited Aryan fellow.

- MariaEve's and Nick's avatars wonder if they should meet in the real world, but never agree to.

- In the real world, MariaEve keeps working long nights at the bar and slowly improving her station in life.

- Nick suspects MariaEve of murdering that dude under the pier and investigates her, even though he's not really a cop.

- Vegas shows up and extorts money out of MariaEve.

None of these are bad ideas, you have to understand.  My complaint isn't that the movie doesn't do interesting things.  It's just that you can only cycle through those points once before losing momentum and wondering when the movie's going to get to the damn point.

Oh, and there's a brief cameo by Morgan Fairchild as a wealthy woman who may or may not be corrupt and secretly manipulating Wyndham for ambiguous reasons.

When the movie finally does break out of its loop, it does so in as baffling and expedient a way as possible.  Apropos of nothing, MariaEve magically recognizes that Nick has been her cybersex partner for the last few weeks, and then they start fucking IRL while she flashes back to a time he said he was a murderer.  Then they get into an argument and MariaEve buys a fake passport so she can flee the city and re-enter it under a third identity.  Then Vegas shoots Nick and kills MarieEve's gentleman roommate, and Nick kills Vegas, and then Wyndham tries to kill both Nick and Eve, so Nick kills Wyndham, and then Eve kisses Nick and leaves.

Then we cut to three years later and find out that Nick has taken over Wyndham's position, which makes no goddamned sense.  Shouldn't Nick be in jail again for murder?  I thought his parole was contingent on a secret agreement to catch the escapees, and he killed the only guy who would have known about it... right?  But whatever, fine, Nick's the new Security Chief of Whateverthefuck Corp.

He goes to that bar where Eve used to work and finds her there under her latest identity, surrounded by wealthy business-types who are following her every beck and whim.  Nick and Eve go off to a private room to talk, and we find out that Eve managed to climb the corporate ladder and go from "falsely-documented migrant with a murder beef, PTSD, and about ten bucks in her pocket" to "Fortune 50 CEO" in a matter of just three fucking years.  You've gotta be kidding me.  Not even Paul Ryan would believe those boot strings.

Eve bought the bar because she just likes it that much, and she and Nick briefly have a nice moment together.  But then, instead of trying to rekindle any kind of romance, they immediately start arguing about petty shit, and Nick leaves in a huff. Later that night, they each plug into their VR software and have virtual sex again.

And then another title card comes up and tells us this:

Yup, that's the tone they decided to end on.  Way to be socially conscious about a made up universe. Bravo, Venus Rising.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Oof, this movie.  It's not bad the same way a lot of other movies I watch on this blog are bad.  But it's still bad.  Uniquely, interestingly, frustratingly bad.

It commits one of my all-time, most-hated sins: poor pacing.  The whole point of this movie is supposed to be Eve struggling with her new life outside of K314 and conquering her past demons, but we don't actually see her start to struggle with that conflict until about half an hour in.  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that a private island prison is a good setting for some horror and tension, but either the prison is your movie, or it's back story - it can't be both.

It's like if you made a movie about a half-human, half-dragon woman who's struggling with bigotry while trying to become an opera singer.  No matter how interesting and weird that human/dragon thing sounds, the actual plot of your movie, as currently described, is about singing opera.  If you open up with half an hour of the protagonist's parents falling in love, getting married, and raising their kid, I'm going to get pretty annoyed when you then finally say, "Haha, just kidding, this is actually a movie about opera."

But even when it does get to the point, the pacing is still off.  The repetition renders Eve's struggles bland and monotonous, and the bad pacing saps out all the tension from Nick's suspicions that she's a murderer.  Then it suddenly snaps in the complete opposite direction and starts moving so fast in the last twenty minutes that it felt like we were skipping over key scenes.

It feels like one of those movies that's so in love with its ideas that it forgets to fill in the spaces between them with connective tissue.  Why did Vegas get separated for so long?  Why does Maria invite Eve into her home?  Why are Nick and Eve so fascinated with each other in cyberspace?  How does Eve recognize Nick in the real world?  How did either of them rise to a point of power and influence in the epilogue?  The answer to all of the above just seems to be, "Eh, fuck it, we need to go to the next scene."

Even worse - some of those ideas, as cool as they might be individually, really don't have a place here.  At least, not the way they're being used.  And to this, I submit Cyber Bandits as a counterpoint.  Both movies have a lot of the same material and concepts - both are (alleged) thrillers from 1995 that take place in a Pacific-adjacent metropolis at some point in the future, both involve romance and contrast physical affection with the thrills of virtual reality, and both involve a mega-corporation that exploits and harms innocent people on the sidelines.  (And more to the point: both movies were produced by the same production companies, Cyberfilms Inc and IRS Media.  So, yeah, makes sense that they both feature the same sets.)

I didn't think Cyber Bandits was all that good a movie, but I generally had fun with it and still gave it a soft recommendation.  Cyber Bandits, like Venus Rising, has some arbitrary scenes of random Future Technology being casually used by its characters.  But there's a world of difference.  When some random thing shows up in Cyber Bandits, it's (usually) introduced with little fanfare and just becomes background flavor to remind you that the movie's set in The Future.  When technology shows up in Venus Rising, it's introduced as if it's supposed to be the whole point of the movie.  And since nothing comes of most of the movie's ideas, it all just feels like padding.

I hate to belabor the point, but both movies were made by the same production staff at the same time, and one of them is at least modestly enjoyable.  Did they film Cyber Bandits in the morning when everybody was fresh and excited for the day, and then they worked on Venus Rising at night when everybody was tired?

For that matter, the lack of a budget annoys me, too.  Or more accurately, the apparent inability to work around it.  For example: K314 should be disturbing and terrifying.  But it barely registers because you don't see much of the prison and you only ever see a handful of prisoners.  Like, I understand that a movie like this can't afford to give you a giant, epic prison riot scene with fire and explosions or whatever, and that's totally fine.  You don't need to go all-out.  But even with a low budget, you should be able to throw in some well-timed shots that give you an idea of the environment.

So what we have is a movie that has neither a good enough screenplay to utilize its ideas nor the budget to effectively portray them, and with such convoluted pacing that even when its ideas do register, you can't understand why the characters make the decisions they make.  In short, it's not great.

And yet there is a good movie that could be made from this.  It's just a matter of culling some nonsense.

The core of this movie would be just as relevant now as it ever has.  You open up with Eve, a beleaguered waitress with an unfulfilling husband, getting a VR machine as a gift from one of her catty friends.  Then you cut to Nick, an ex-con lowlife with a heart of almost-gold who scams lonely women on VR.  Eve and Nick hook up virtually and, despite their innate cynicism toward both life and VR, romance blooms between them.  But as they fall deeper and deeper in love virtually, they find that real life is more and more frustrating.  When they finally meet in person, they realize they don't have the same connection they did in their fantasy land, and so even after they're able to conquer their real-world difficulties, they implicitly agree to keep their relationship confined to the virtual world.

It would be tragic, romantic, and believable.  And it wouldn't cost that much to make, either.  So why would you want to go and ruin that with a bunch of nonsense about prison islands and mood pills?

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'll give it 10 cred for obscurity and another 5 cred as a pedigree bonus, on account of the connection to the much more hipstery Cyber Bandits.  I'll give it 5 more cred because there's a very brief, very tiny, very pointless scene featuring a 14 year-old Jessica Alba in one of her very first performances during one of Eve's flashbacks.

The fact that this is a movie with an obsolete vision of what the future would look like does add a bit of hipster mystique (hipstique?) to it, but since it's not implemented very well, I can't really give it too much of a bonus.  Let's go with 5 points for its take on The Future.

I don't know what else there is to give credit for.  It feels like a hipster trap, to be honest.  On the surface, it seems like something you might dangle on a hook to lure in unsuspecting hipsters.  "C'mon over, guys, it's a little-seen, direct-to-video science-fiction movie from the mid-90s featuring VR and a gratuitous Morgan Fairchild cameo!"  But then you take a bite and you realize there's really nothing there after all, and you've just been suckered into 90 slow, confusing minutes.

So, I think it's fair to leave this one with a paltry total of 25 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

I couldn't find it on any streaming services, but it was released on DVD.  You can buy a used copy on the cheap or you can rent it from Netflix like I did.