Loretta Goff alternates between realities at a screening of Simon Pummell’s sci-fi thriller Brand New-U at the Cork Film Festival.
At its core, Simon Pummel’s Brand New-U is an exploration of the choices that go into constructing our identities. Combining elements of science-fiction, thriller, and romance, the film follows Slater (Lachlan Nieboer) as he pursues his girlfriend Nadia (Nora-Jane Noone) across a series of “alternative life spaces” after she is abducted from their home by a professional team that leave a dead doppelganger in her place. It turns out her abductors work for the Brand New-U franchise which helps clients become better versions of themselves by matching them (and swapping them) with “Identicals” that are supposedly living happier lives.
“What do we believe? There’s a better life waiting for us. Who? Somebody else. Where? Somewhere else.” This mantra, repeated in the film’s opening sequence and periodically throughout, is part of Brand New-U’s series of test questions to determine new-life readiness and find an Identical match. After being led to the franchise by a series of mysterious recorded messages, Slater is convinced to undergo this process (his alternative is being charge with his girlfriend’s murder). However, before he progresses to his new life, he must sign a contract. This contract, which states that Brand New-U owns Slater’s new life, also stipulates the franchise’s one rule: he must not bring any part of his former life into his next. For Slater, this proves impossible.
The film essentially contains three worlds. The first of these (shot in Dublin) is the most grounded in reality, albeit one with an otherworldly decaying and sparsely furnished aesthetic. The two worlds that follow resemble slick, futuristic cities, and become increasingly abstracted as we descend further into the world of Slater’s mind. Colours are important in this visually rich film with the darkness of night (during which the majority of the film seems to be set) starkly contrasted by sterile overly-white interior scenes inside Brand New-U headquarters, Slater’s new apartment, and the factory where he now works. At the same time blue and red tonal shots work in tandem with his emotional journey.
Shape also plays an important role in this film, with a particular prevalence of circularity. Despite Brand New-U’s rule of never looking back, it is seemingly impossible to escape 360⁰ imagery or the sense of circular repetition evoked by the film. For one, the lens the Brand-New U agents use to identify potential matches (which we see through) has a circular design in the centre reading information. In the second life space the apartment buildings are of a tubular shape, with repeated circular windows, Slater continually gazes down a spiral staircase with a 360⁰ view on the lookout for Nadia, and the hovering drones that watch him at work are also of a circular design. The use of these devices (most of which are designed for viewing, including the binoculars Slater later uses) along with Slater’s continually searching gaze all contribute to the “Big Brother” sense in the film that there is always someone watching. This is perhaps overemphasised at times with numerous painfully long shots of the characters staring at something.
Both Nieboer and Noone put in strong performances, playing against other versions of themselves that are subtly adjusted to reflect the different life spaces. However, there is a certain detachment felt in both their roles which pervades the entire film. It is as if the characters (who we really know very little about other than Slater’s determination to find Nadia) are just walking through lives chosen for them (rather than finding their promised happiness), only really lighting up in their chemistry together. This feeling, along with the slow pace of the film leaves the viewer feeling a bit detached as well.
Attending the screening of the film were both director Simon Pummel and co-producer Conor Barry, who participated in a Q&A afterwards. Here, Pummel explained that “the project came out of a sense that we live multiple lives these days […]. Over the period of our lives we get to be different versions of ourselves.” He went on to explain his own contemplations of identity after spending time living in three different countries and also witnessing his digital media students managing their dispersed identities online and in person.
While the concept behind this film is both timely and intriguing, it unfortunately falls a bit flat in the film. While Slater does face certain choices along his journey, it mostly feels manipulated by Brand New-U (though perhaps this is a reflection on societal manipulation of our own identities). What really lets the film down, though, are the unnecessarily long sequences and underdeveloped characters which distance the viewer. This being said, the film’s visual effects and style, along with a well executed soundtrack, deserve accolades (particularly with its modest 1.3 million budget) and, as a whole, it does inspire philosophical reflection.
Brand New U screened 8th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)