When it comes to using technology and science as narrative tools to probe the nature of the human heart, Spanish writer-director Mateo Gil knows a thing or two. He co-wrote Abre Los Ojos, Alejandro Amenábar’s twisty-turvy tale of a man who might be going crazy, or might be suffering side effects from post-traumatic memory implants. (The American remake, Vanilla Sky, preserved the twists.) He also co-wrote Amenábar’s The Sea Inside, which tells the story of a quadriplegic fighting for the ability to end his life on his own terms. These ideas crash and collide in Gil’s latest film, Realive, which hits video-on-demand services today.
Realive stars Tom Hughes as Marc, an artist with a tumultuous love life. When he learns he has cancer, rather than fight to the end, Marc opts to be frozen cryogenically. Sixty years later, he’s resurrected, but learns he still has to grapple with the regret and unfinished business he thought he’d left in his past. It’s an intriguing premise for a science-fiction film, and Gil takes an internal, character-based approach that’s rare even in a low-budget science-fiction flick.
The earnest approach doesn’t entirely work, however, resulting in a tepid film that gestures toward grand emotional pay-offs it never quite earns. For a movie that’s ostensibly about a man’s journey to understand how to feel emotions, even if it means the pain of regret, Realive remains painfully lifeless.
The film runs on parallel tracks. One traces Marc’s modern-day coping with his diagnosis, and the impact it has on his friends and on-again, off-again girlfriend Naomi (Oona Chaplin). The other follows his new life, as he’s revived into a strange future. Guiding him through the latter is medical-team member Elizabeth (Charlotte Le Bon, The Walk). Once Marc revives, the premise’s science-fiction elements pay off, as Gil explores the medical facility’s pristine, sleek, all-white world. (We should just start calling this Stock Future at this point, though the film does sometimes infuse it with a darker, THX 1138-inspired flavor.) Marc is surrounded by transparent tablet devices that help monitor his new body. He’s part resurrected flesh, part regenerated tissue, and part machine, and a sequence when he’s being brought back to life feels like a combination of Hellraiser and Westworld. It’s undeniably cool, and while it’s a lower-budget film, Gil gives everything a sense of style and polish that sells the setting completely.
But it turns out that being resurrected in the future is a bit of a drag. Marc can’t walk at first. Getting control of his bodily functions takes time, and his doctors won’t let him outside the facility until he’s ready to face the press. He’s the first resurrectee, and in one of the movie’s many narrative threads, it turns out there’s a business component to his newfound existence. But worst of all is the fact that Marc is a lonely man out of time. He regrets the way he handled things with Naomi before his death — and the film revisits his grief over and over, in a painfully ponderous voiceover that’s enough to induce cringing by the end of the film.
There are stylistic, clever ways to get at these ideas. In the future, Marc has a memory reader that lets him revisit and record key moments, and the movie’s twin narrative threads offer plenty of opportunity for juxtaposition and cross-cutting. But all too often, Realive resorts to treacly music cues while Marc ponders The Big Questions of Life in voiceover, sometimes even referring to himself in the third person. His narration isn’t just clunky; it draws attention to itself in the most obvious manner, telling the audience what Gil wants viewers to be feeling, rather than actually making them feel anything. It doesn’t help that Hughes plays Marc as emotionally detached and charisma-free for much of the movie. The flashbacks to pre-diagnosis “happy” Marc are fleeting, and when much of the movie’s emotional thrust ends up revolving around Marc and Naomi’s love story, it’s hard to feel anything but sidelined by the whole thing.
There are some impressive moments in Realive, particularly in the stylish production design. Le Bon brings real humanity to Elizabeth, no small feat given the character’s circumstances. In fact, Realive checks as many of the go-to genre boxes science-fiction fans could hope for. Narcissistic doctors playing god with science? Got it. Morally questionable corporations? Handled. Body horror? Oh yeah.
But they all end up feeling like tropes being crossed off a checklist, without any living, breathing story to support them. And whenever Realive does find an interesting dynamic or relationship to explore, it inevitably falls back on ideas and themes Gil helped explore better in Abre Los Ojos and The Sea Inside. It may seem cranky to critique original science fiction at a time when we’re so hungry for original material, but Realive seems so thematically redundant, it feels like a remake of a film that hasn’t been made yet.
It turns out that the idea of a man coming back from the dead isn’t necessarily enough to support a film on its own, heavy-handed references to Lazarus or not. Neither is an abundance of sleek future-tech. The film needs characters and a premise worth investing in, and while Gil has proven he can find those things in other stories, in Realive he fails to give them any kind of animation or life of their own.