Stars: Josh Caras, Ian Christopher Noel, Joslyn Jensen and Reed Birney.
Writers: Destin Douglas and Carleton Ranney.
Director: Carleton Ranney.
Had Carleton Ranney’s cyber-noir thriller Jackrabbit been shepherded through the studio mill, it may have emerged as a kind of dystopic-worldview version of Sneakers, Phil Alden Robinson’s 1992 crowdpleaser that the hacker community still bows before.
Instead, Ranney and co-writer Destin Douglas have honoured the non-conformist stance of their protagonists and delivered a dark, thoughtful take on small-scale insurgent destabilisation. The young Texan’s feature directing debut is more ‘headscratcher’ than ‘crowdpleaser’, but it will be the deliberately oblique narrative that the festival crowds should find most engaging. To his credit, he also keeps to a minimum those ‘typing’ and ‘staring at monitors’ moments that burden most tech-themed thrillers.
Ranney and his talented production design team envision the near future as City Sector VI, a metropolis overseen by the all-seeing VOPO Corporation. An event known only as ‘The Reset’ has made state-of-the-art computer tech redundant, the population reverting to 80’s era circuitry that offers a meagre upside while allowing VOPO to spy on the population via a CCTV network; drone networks and ‘men in black’ operatives enforce border checkpoints and night-time curfews.
From an opening sequence that recalls the sad death of real-world hacker-hero Aaron Schwartz, an angry-young-man tech-outlaw, Max (a compelling Ian Christopher Noel) and VOPO-bound, short-sleeves-&-tie type Simon (Josh Caras) are drawn together as mutual friends of the deceased. With Joslyn Jensen’s Grace providing some much needed feminine guile (and presence) in the second act, the mismatched pair uncover an encrypted hard drive left behind by their late friend that may have far reaching consequences for the very structure of the Orwellian society.
As the plot thickens, so to does Ranney’s tendency towards understated ambiguity and minimalism. There are moments in the unravelling of the mystery that seem arbitrary, yet the momentum never fully subsides. For some, 101 stealthy minutes may prove grating but there is no denying the filmmakers have adhered to a well-defined indie-film aesthetic that ultimately rewards. One of the key thematic strands is the value of information as currency; Ranney, too, utilises and honours the details in minutiae.
One of the great pleasures of Ranney’s world is the disorienting retro-vibe the setting exudes. In addition to the box monitors and dinner-plate circuit boards, the fashions tend towards skinny ties and sleeveless vests, harkening back to the decade in which computers and the nefarious networks they foot-soldier for was born (check out the pic’s fun website for further 80s influence). Also superbly of the period is the pulsating synth-score from MGMT’s Will Berman, borrowing freely from the musical stylings of genre giant John Carpenter.
Jackrabbit screens as part of the SciFi Film Festival in Sydney on October 31. Session and ticketing information can be found at the events website.