Saturday, January 16, 2016

Webmaster

 
   I've come to realize that Webmaster, like so many other direct-to-video movies, is not necessarily underrated... but underestimated. It's crafted with care and detail, milking it's modest budget for every penny, creating atmospheric sets and vibrant digital landscapes. Yet, for years I'd dismissed this movie based on nothing more than poor looking cover art, a crappy title, and a complete lack of word of mouth. You don't hear about movies like this, they kinda just take up space in bargain bins and they used to be video store shelf filler. It's a shame because this movie is really creative and fascinating. It's a bit dated, but manages to be the noir-ish cyberpunk flick that Johnny Mnemonic wished it was, and it holds up considerably better.

  Maybe I'm being a bit generous- it's not a bit dated, it's very dated. Cyberpunk concepts have evolved over time in response to how real technology has updated and evolved as well. The internet and 'surfing the web' was pretty revolutionary back in the early 90's. It was a new thing and still very unexplored. Thus, a lot of science fiction at the time, in particular- Cyberpunk stuff, treated the internet as something very 'out there'. At that time, the future of the internet was a digital environment where websites were physical things your blocky digital avatar could reach out and grab like a newspaper. Nowadays people might chuckle at the concept, but because we've never actually had anything like that... I still find it interesting and rather cool looking.

  Yet, despite it's outdated hardware, it's concepts are still unique and fascinating to me. In Webmaster, you don't just have digital avatars- you have virtual 'egos', which interact with you like Jarvis interacts with Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. Your ego is set up to act on your behalf when you're away, which is something I hope doesn't catch on nowadays. In a culture so obsessed with being plugged in, connected, and online as much as humanly possible- that would be horrible. Pretty soon, social media would just be our virtual selves autonomously 'liking' and sharing info. Who needs to interact with other people when you can have a computerized -you- do it for you? Scary. Webmaster didn't have the foresight to realize it's implications, but still- it's interesting stuff.

   I do have to clarify my love for the virtual CGI scenes in the movie- they're horribly dated, like so many other aspects of this movie, but at this point, they're practically retro. Yes, they're crap effects but they're also emblematic of how people imagined interaction across a virtual environment would look at one point in time. Specifically, the 90's. Unfortunately, there were better special effects to be had in 1998, but it doesn't matter in 2016- the past is the past. Am I going to gripe that they didn't have the 'polish' and glossy shine that the effects in Lawnmower Man had? No, because Lawnmower Man's effects are still just as dated. I think I prefer the rough and unfinished look of the virtual scenes in Webmaster though, it feels very... bootleg. And, if that's not 'cyberpunk', I'm not sure I know what is.

  Anyways, the story is about JB, a hacker of sorts who gets framed for screwing over Stoiss, the webmaster of "the Domain" (a massive bootleg internet, best as I can figure) and stealing his money. JB insists that he can find who set him up, and Stoiss agrees to let him try and figure it out, but not without a deadline- literally. Stoiss, in typical big bad boss guy fashion, fits JB with a mechanical heart that takes over his pulmonary system and will shut it down in so many hours unless Stoiss himself deactivates it. This is all really interesting stuff and it helps that it's married with interesting visuals, and good acting. Unfortunately, the movie is dubbed to English from Danish- and it's a pretty horrible dub. It rarely matches lip-movement at all, and plenty of voices look ill-fitting to the actors they're put with.

  Alas, that's but only one serious gripe with the movie. Despite all it's unusual concepts and technology, there's fatal flaws to all of it. For one, the virtual 'egos' are unique to each user via a disc. But, anyone can use your ego if they have your disc. That's a horrible design flaw. The egos aren't even password protected. Not that it'd make much difference, since almost everyone in the movie is a hacker. Tron did the 'identity disc' concept, but did it better. As interesting as the egos are, their implementation is fairly flawed. On top of this, most of the technology in the movie is irrelevant to the plot when all is said and done. It might have some great visuals and such, but the story should've been more inclusive of it's own cyberpunk concepts and dependent on the technology it invented.

   At it's heart, Webmaster is a noir mystery with hi-tech cyberpunk concepts but the two rarely go hand in hand. I had lots of fun with the movie and it's visuals, and the story is fine, but it suffers from a disconnect with it's own material. But, at least the characters are fun! JB is a neat protagonist- really meticulous, witty, and very physically fit, yet despite all that he's basically a hermit nerd. He'd much rather interact with other virtual egos over the Domain instead of meet people in real life. He has maybe one good friend who he sees in person, and only because she's tech-illiterate. So it's interesting to see JB forced to interact with people and investigate this mystery without his virtual safety net. He ends up in some really cool looking places with fantastic set design that any cyberpunk genre fan would go nutty for.

  I was especially impressed with the designs and sets in this movie. They made great use of their shooting locations and everything looked futuristic and very grungy. There was a real lived-in and worn out feel to the world in Webmaster, like people had become so caught up in technology and virtual lives that the real world has become collectively neglected. Except, of course, by people looking for interactions that simulations can't top. Underground fetish clubs, nightclubs with neon-lit dance floors, and any other place that caters to the flesh. All places that JB ends up having to be, tracking down leads and such. It's also unfortunate that so many of these places seem to only just barely maintain their relevance to the plot.

  When all is said and done, Webmaster is a fast paced, sci-fi, tech-filled, violent, erotic, hip and exciting thriller that has a wealth of surprisingly interesting characters and a moderately solid story. I was very impressed by this 90's flick as it transcended it's low budget trappings, over and over. Despite being dated, it manages to escape that ugly pit of unwanted bad-nostalgia that an old IBM commercial has. Instead, something about Webmaster feels a bit more slick. It's rough-around-the-edges visual aesthetic make for interesting viewing as does all it's imaginary tech- looking at least plausible and cool- instead of old and clunky like a dial up modem. Webmaster is energetic, atmospheric, and fascinating, and for my money- was quite good, despite several big flaws.

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