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[column size=one_half position=first ]Sometimes it feels like this feature should be called ‘In Defense Of…’, because some films are by all rights pretty dodge. But luckily this isn’t about good movies, just movies worth watching. In its day Virtuosity made a neat little crater at the box office and it probably deserved it. But today it’s everything that was cool about Nineties sci fi.

The Nineties was a golden age for science fiction films. Just start counting: Event Horizon, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Independence Day, 12 Monkeys, Mars Attacks, Star Trek First Contact, Stargate. You got the picture four movies ago, but it’s hard to stop with such a great list.

The Nineties also loved virtual reality as a theme – Lawnmower Man, Brainscan… okay, no more lists. Anyway, it was a widely used and abused theme. Virtuosity was one of the latter. If it is a crime to use rubbish science in your future world, Virtuosity is doing donuts in a stolen car on the judge’s lawn.

In some near future a former cop turned convict is used as a guinea pig to test a virtual reality training system which pits the participants against a murderous computer-generated psychopath. Something goes wrong and one of the convicts die. It turns out the marauding psychotic AI, called SID 6.7, has become sentient and wants out. SID hatches a scheme with its programmer to use some sort of nano goo to create a real version of itself. The convict, Parker, who has experience chasing SID in the simulation, is given the option of his freedom if he can track down the rogue AI in the real world.

‘Track down’ is not really the description. SID is not exactly hiding his murderous streak and causes all kinds of hell. It helps that his nano-built body can repair itself with glass, including whole limbs. Parker gives chase through a variety of action sequences and daft plot points. The script uses words like ‘genetic algorithms’ and steals footnotes from computer culture to fake legitimacy.  The only thing that saves Virtuosity is its blistering pace.

Well, that and the combined talents of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Crowe shines as the vicious SID, owning every scene he’s in with growing malevolence and clearly loving it. It’s a pity he so rarely plays a villain. Washington is the straight guy to Russell’s maniac, playing Parker in that stoic bloodhound mode he’d use on many movies after this. These two pretty much carry the film, with some help from action sequences and a few brief appearances by William Forsythe. It nonetheless bombed, perhaps because the Nineties were spoiled for choice in good sci fi.[/column] [column size=one_half position=last ]

Russell Crowe’s star was starting to rise around the release of Virtuosity and his talent gave the actor free reign to create SID 6.7. It even impressed Denzel Washington, who after a particularly harrowing screen test with Crowe said: “This man is an actor. This man has got to get the job. Does everybody hear me?” That said, Crowe’s ego was not small at the time and he famously gave rather arrogant interviews during the film’s marketing period.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached for the role of Parker, but his asking price was too much. Michael Douglas was also considered for the role. But it went to Denzel Washington after his son insisted he try out for it. The original script called for Washington and Kelly Lynch to share a kiss, but Washington rejected this as being artificial, believing it would hurt the movie. Given the film’s atmosphere, he was right. Virtuosity was also the film debut of Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting as the little girl – she would later find fame in The Big Bang Theory.
Virtuosity wasn’t a catastrophic bomb, nearly making back its $30 million budget on domestic earnings. The studio hired Brett Leonard to direct, hoping he’d strike sci-fi gold again as previously with the over-rated Lawnmower Man. The result, though, was enough of a mess that a different director was hired to re-edit the film. Critics loathed Virtuosity, though some – like Roger Ebert – were a lot kinder than most. But it was clearly meant to have been a big action vehicle and a launchpad for Russell Crowe’s career. He would get his chance several years later in Gladiator, but never returned to such a great villainous role. Later Crowe and Denzel Washington would find their on-screen chemistry again for the hit American Gangster.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: October 20, 2014

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