Criminal (2016)

There comes a point with science fiction where ideas which are still in the realm of fiction somehow get introduced into mainstream films which would sneer at anyone who dared call them SF.  Think of Eagle Eye, say, whose nearly omnipotent AI is a total fantasy.  We’ve been convinced that such a machine is just a matter of time – and maybe the NSA has one lurking in their basement which they haven’t bothered to mention to anyone.  Or the classic Michael Caine film, The Ipcress Files which frames a super brainwashing program against the mundane world of Michael’s working class spy.

Criminal seems to fall into the same category.

Here we have a hard-edged crime/spy drama which tries not to notice that it has a James Bond villain and matching sexy, female assistant.  Like a lot of recent films (Self/Less and Transcendence come to mind) it involves downloading the contents of someone’s brain.

The interesting detail here is that it only works if you can find someone whose pre-frontal cortex is unformed – and Kevin Costner’s ultraviolent criminal is one of those one in a million people who do, thanks to a childhood injury.

Unfortunately, this means he has a total lack of empathy, emotions and self-control.

Kevin has come a long way.  It’s almost impossible to picture the young, self-assured Dances With Wolves Kevin playing a brutal convict who is little more than a monster.  Tommy Lee Jones, looking very old, plays the Doctor conducting the experiment, Ryan Reynolds, without feature billing, plays the dead agent, and Gal Gadot, while she has a large and meaty role here, still only gets fourth billing, after Alice Eve who doesn’t have anywhere near as much screen time.  And I have to wonder if she got even that credit because she just played Wonder Woman?

Frankly, I have serious doubts about applying Turing’s dictate that the same software can run on any computer to the human mind – our biology seems to work in ways that don’t fit neatly into the traditional hardware/software distinction (look, for example, at the role played by RNA segments in cellular regulation).  And then there’s the latest study from Sweden which apparently disproves the claims that we can now “read” thoughts with fMRI imaging, which makes the notion seem far less…imminent than it used to.

But it is always good to see SF that takes itself seriously.  That doesn’t happen often enough.  Sure, Criminal may take its SF elements seriously because it doesn’t happen to know that they’re SF, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a well-made, hard-edged spy thriller with a solid cast, a welcome, redemptive story arc, and a great performance from a battered Kevin Costner.  Maybe it isn’t a great film, but it is still far better than most of the popcorn fare out there.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

 

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