Largely overlooked, this cynical, cyberpunk film noir is worth seeking out. With minimal special effects, lots of dark humor and a potent screenplay from writer-director Peter Lehner, MEGAVILLE demonstrates what can be done with a sharp idea and razor-edged attitude. The plot carries faint echoes of the elephantine TOTAL RECALL. Deliberately vague in setting...read more
Largely overlooked, this cynical, cyberpunk film noir is worth seeking out. With minimal special effects, lots of dark humor and a potent screenplay from writer-director Peter Lehner, MEGAVILLE demonstrates what can be done with a sharp idea and razor-edged attitude.
The plot carries faint echoes of the elephantine TOTAL RECALL. Deliberately vague in setting up its dystopic universe, MEGAVILLE takes place in some unspecified future when a chunk of the former US is now the Hemisphere, a bleak dictatorship combining chillier aspects of the Soviet Union and the
Moral Majority. All forms of entertainment media are forbidden because they supposedly degrade societal values with their pervasive images of violence, sex and mockery (examples of the offending media are briefly shown; they're innocent old Keystone Kop comedies!), and to enforce the ban a squad
of paramilitary Media Police raid the Hemisphere's dens of iniquity, smashing TV sets airing ancient Westerns.
Raymond Palinov (Billy Zane) is a young Media Policeman, troubled by sudden headaches and anomalous memory flashbacks. Despite his failing job performance he's recruited by Hemisphere's dreaded internal security agency, the CKS. They say he closely resembles a notorious outlaw and media-smuggler
named Jensen. Palinov gets a remote-control transmitter implanted in his brain and, disguised as Jensen, he's sent to infiltrate Megaville, a neighboring nation-state that's an undisguised version of Los Angeles and a major source of media.
To his horror, Palinov/Jensen learns his mission is to set up a secret conduit to the Hemisphere for Megaville's latest and most addictive media, a headphone-shaped device called Dream-A-Life (DAL) that plunges the wearer's mind into a preselected artificial reality. The hero further discovers
that he's not just portraying the fearsome Jensen, he is Jensen, his identity scrambled by a modified form of DAL lodged in his skull. The CKS want to distribute DAL themselves and keep the dissident elements of the Hemisphere drugged and docile. Jensen/Palinov finds himself at odds with both the
CKS, who crudely discipline him with zaps from his neural implant, and Megaville hoods, who figured him as an infiltrator from the start. After numerous double-crosses and deceits the doomed Jensen forces rough justice to prevail in a desert climax derived from Von Stronheim's GREED.
The tale's acid metaphor for the War on Drugs seems superficial at best, but MEGAVILLE's main achievement is ambiance. Apart from Dream-A-Life ("Take a Vacation from Yourself") and the distorted visions from the brain implant, MEGAVILLE eschews visual f/x kitsch and expensive futuristic sets.
Filmmaker Peter Lehner neatly places the whole Megaville segment in present-day LA (reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's use of contemporary Paris for another planet in ALPHAVILLE), while the Hemisphere's brooding, Byzantine architecture belongs with George Orwell's totalitarian Oceania in 1984.
Lehner obviously knows his movies, and MEGAVILLE opens with hardboiled voiceover narration straight out of a 1940s crime melodrama courtesy of a philosphical but amoral Megavillian named Newman--"new man"--who would assassinate his own president or son to protect DAL sales and sums up the first
law of Megaville: "Never trust anybody but that ugly guy in the mirror."
None of the characters are remotely likable, with the exception of the bewildered hero played by Billy Zane (DEAD CALM, MEMPHIS BELLE). He's a short-lived composite personality--Jensen's ruthlessness married to Palinov's sheeplike submission, resulting in the only individual onscreen with a
conscience and sense of decency. Durable character actor J.C. Quinn (SILKWOOD, BARFLY, THE ABYSS) steps out of relative anonymity to portray Newman, and cult actress Grace Zabriskie (DRUGSTORE COWBOY, WILD AT HEART) plays Palinov's pathetically doting mom, whose naked ambition makes her a
convenient hostage for the CKS. Perhaps the most recognizable face onscreen is Daniel J. Travanti (Captain Frank Furillo on TV's "Hill Street Blues"), scene-stealingly sinister as Duprell, the gravel-throated CKS chief. Throughout the course of the picture his health decays, taking him from cane
to wheelchair to sickbed to respirator; but his iron grip on power stays firm as he monitors all from his Hemisphere lair.
The typical film noir never had a simple plot, and MEGAVILLE makes no exception. Viewers accustomed to spoon-fed narratives may have as much difficulty as Billy Zane in figuring out what Jensen's supposed to be doing. The presidential assassination seems too tangential to the main story, almost as
if a few scenes were missing. Also, the trick Jensen pulls to decapitate the CKS is cool but rather illogical and may demand a repeat viewing to get straight. This is easily accomplished, as MEGAVILLE circulated primarily as a low-profile B-movie home video release. That's a pity; a lot of thought
and talent went into this small, deadly delicacy, and it deserves a wider audience. (Violence, profanity, adult situations.)
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