Ctrl Alt Delete
Crichton-esque techno-thriller about hackers and sysadmin fighting to escape a data center overrun by a deadly artificial intelligence.
James B. Cox
James B. Cox
Now, before you write it off ‘cause you’re totally not a computer nerd (neither am I), know that the film has plenty to offer visually, but falls far too short in so many other categories.
Charlie (Blake Robbins) has a meeting one Friday afternoon with his higher-up; Mushira (prolific character actress Amy Aquino – whom I always recognize as Melanie Griffith’s secretary at the end of Working Girl) and is given a lecture, followed by a surprise promotion. First order of business is to fire one of his now underlings, Jayhawk (Adam Shapiro). At the same time – as the high-rise building which houses their company; Thule (pronounced “too-lay”) is closed up for the weekend, two things happen. A new super-computer called M.A.N.A. is delivered (meant to replace Jayhawk) and three computer hackers/thieves – Lex (Molly Burnett), Sparrow (Andy Allo) and Burton (Brian Patrick Wade) infiltrate the deserted building. Charlie and Jayhawk decide to switch on M.A.N.A. for a joyride/test run, and quickly, the computer begins to think on its own, lock the thieves and technicians in the building and wreak havoc on the company offices – before attempting to extend its nano-bot reach to the outside world. The thieves must band together with Jayhawk and Charlie in order to find a way out of the locked-down building, as well as to halt M.A.N.A’s dangerous expansion of power and influence.
The story is never as engaging as I’d like it to be, which is a crying shame. One of the promising first scenes has Jayhawk and his co-worker/buddy Rafi (Josh Banday) finishing up their work and shooting the shit about movie trivia and various other geeky topics. It’s a lively and genuine exchange between the characters, and it’s perfectly sold by the actors. But many things about the film go downhill from there.
Visually, the film is sleekly produced and the effects – visual and special effects make-up – are convincing, exciting and high quality. Writer/director James B. Cox apparently constructed the computer rooms from scratch, and once you see the film, you’ll marvel at the detail and scope, just as I did.
I didn’t have any problems with performances from this small ensemble, but frankly, no one really stood out. I found them all competent. If I had to choose the best, I’d give a high five to Blake Robbins as Charlie (he was nominated for a Best Actor in a Feature award at this year’s Filmquest) and the Catherine Mary Stewart look-a-like, Molly Burnett as the leader of the hacker trio. There’s nothing overly-impressive about their work, but I never doubted their conviction. Their work isn’t in question – it’s what’s backing them up which requires some examination.
With that, the problems begin and end with the story and the script. Inexplicably, the script was nominated for Best Feature Screenplay at this year’s Filmquest. Aside from the aforementioned opening dialogue between Rafi and Jayhawk, I don’t recall anything particularly memorable about the script itself. As for the plot, the arrival of the hacker/thieves felt too convenient. I realize that most films contain plot turns like this, in order to even have a film – but here it felt achingly inorganic.
The frequent cutaways to Rafi (he escapes the building before the lockdown begins) as he attempts to woo a blonde beauty in the gym – well, they’re goofy all right – but only serve to distract from what’s happening within the confines of the office building. I understand the reason for his continued inclusion in the story, but there must have been a better way to keep him in our minds for his important role later in the story (as a sort of bumbling deus ex machina) – without hitting a roadblock when the audience is taken away from Thule. And honestly, what was the point of the intro of the woman in the gym? Completely unnecessary.
There’s also a cutaway scene to some no-name character – a dude in a parking garage – meant to advertise the fact that M.A.N.A.’s influence is expanding beyond the offices of Thule. But it’s also pointless and another unwise break from the major action. Any build-up of suspense comes to a grinding halt with these outside observations.
On the topic of suspense, the film held us in that strange limbo state of any thriller/horror film which falls just shy of pulling it off – the increasing suspense never reaches fever-pitch. It’s by no means boring, but the stakes (and therefore the tension) are never high enough.
More time could have been used to get to know the characters. Other than the fact that Charlie is a family man, we don’t know much. And there’s even less to learn about the supporting characters. And that leads to a total lack of sympathy for any and all personalities in the film.
And the introduction of the three hackers (wearing inexplicable makeup – assumedly so hide their identities) only serves to further confuse the audience on who we are to follow. Even in the best of ensemble films, we still need to be clear on which character is the one whose journey we are to join. This delineation is just not present here.
Whether or not they existed in the mind of writer/director James B. Cox or not, I saw inspirations from the Resident Evil films, most notably the original, as the Red Queen mainframe turned the entire research lab on its ear, resulting in gruesome deaths. Ctrl Alt Delete owes a debt of gratitude to that malevolent artificial intelligence. And believe it or not, the glowing green fluid of M.A.N.A. and its ability to influence events, people and material objects – reminded me of the glowing green fluid of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness – with its frightening ability to influence events, people and material objects.
At its core, Ctrl Alt Delete is a very stylish, sleekly produced film, but with no one to root for and a disjointed story, it fails to fully intrigue. It’s a triumph in its visuals – but when the audience just doesn’t care – even the best-looking films cannot succeed.
Ctrl Alt Delete has won several awards during its ongoing festival run. No further word on pending release dates or distribution deals.