We often come across films that are not particularly good but are at least pleasant to look at. The screen adaptation of Silent Hill, for instance, is an aesthetically satisfying work, even if the substance accompanying the imagery leaves much to be desired. The same might apply to a work like Max Payne, another video game adaptation that has its striking moments. You could even stretch the example to the Resident Evil line of films which, while deplorably poor, somehow are entertaining beyond what they are entitled to be. A movie like Ultraviolet sits comfortably in such a category, perhaps most out of the aforementioned titles. It is also the most disappointing of that group. But that is not as big a slight as it sounds, for, as it happens there is good to be found in Ultraviolet.
The film takes us into a future where society has been struck by a virus that turns its subjects into vampires. The government segregates the vampires from the general population in order to protect the pure-blooded humans. It is another dystopia, another film laden with themes like class structure, bigotry, oppression, totalitarianism, and other similarly overwrought concerns that seem to recur in futuristic works.
Ultraviolet’s problems are the same that plague all bad films: poor dialogue, acting, and narrative. For instance, Ultraviolet is heavily reliant on imaginary future technology, but it does not bother to explain what it presents us with. This can be good—we don’t need a tutorial on the membrane-thin disposable phone made out of cardboard, for we can build an understanding by ourselves—but it can also be bad. For instance, the protagonist is resuscitated after a long period of time spent being dead. Ignored is the fact that irreparable damage is done to our vital organs after mere seconds without blood circulation, let alone minutes. Yet, she survives. It’s hard to care about the hero when nothing can kill them, and their desperation and tribulations are, as a result, false.
But Ultraviolet does end up being palatable for one reason: its style. Ultraviolet’s world is quite marvelous. The action takes place in a city, a metropolis lined mostly by towers made of glass. They’re tall and elegant and often bizarrely impractical. One skyscraper is a large globe atop a thin, spindly trunk; another is a conventional looking high-rise that has three gigantic circular pipes, like a tripod’s legs, shooting out its sides.
Yet, concurrently, everything is minimalistic. The interior walls of buildings are painted in plain colors: orange, blue, purple, red, green, or yellow (similar to the video game Mirror’s Edge). Those colors are applied to the environment, where a building might be entirely orange, or a truck might be solid red. The costuming, simple but flavored, is the same. The evil police forces are particularly well outfitted, with different colors and items depending on the surroundings, some quite human, others apparently made of glass, shattering when struck. Fun can be had just looking at the world. It’s almost worth the price of admission for the sights alone.
Unfortunately, the physical techniques employed in the process cause the work to unravel. The picture has something of a soft glow to it and a digital effect has been applied to the actors so that their faces appear smooth and without texture. The airbrushing is an attempt to give it a comic book/pop art look, for there is also a ton of cell-shaded CG which looks somewhat jarring. Near every shot has some type of CG earmark. At least by eye, it looks like every exterior scene uses a computer generated background. It is not the CG in itself that is problematic, but rather its poor quality that causes it to be obvious and harsh.
The futuristic design extends further to the camera work and the acting. There’s frequent zooming and quick dollying and unnecessary changes in film speed. Most curious of all is the dialogue, which is stilted and robotic and is spoken by the actors in a sort of monotonous patter that sits heavily on the ears like morning mist on a swamp. Even if intentional, ninety minutes of that speech pattern is grating.
And that’s the ultimate reason for Ultraviolet’s downfall: such things just don’t work on film, at least not with this approach. Undoubtedly a better script and a more intelligent filmmaking attitude would result in a better product. But the bad dialogue and acting and obnoxious camera work cannot be saved by the argument that it’s “how the movie is meant to look.” The result is an unsightly film with shades of beauty beneath.
Ultraviolet is disappointing because of the lost potential. Take that world and pair it with a good script and a good director and good actors and the result might be something impressive, and certainly something novel. In its current state, the film is a tour of a future landscape interspersed with unnecessary interruptions in the form of people and story.
One root of the problem—and this is not unique to Ultraviolet—is the modern obsession with tales of woe from the future. Each man has his own dystopian vision, and each man is eager to share. But isn’t it about time that somebody stepped up and announced that we’re all bored with it? It’s no longer new and interesting, if it ever was. Every society has been concerned with the state of its culture and civilization. Go back thirty or forty years to the Reagan administration and you’ll find that the prevailing sentiment was that the American era was coming to a quick, messy end, and that the country was to be a wreck by the next decade. That, evidently, did not happen. Dreams of horrible futures, these “revelations” and “warnings” issued out in such movies and books, are not distinct or special.
A non-dystopian Ultraviolet would have been unusual and fresh. It seems, at least anecdotally, that we rarely get to see future cities and future worlds without some totalitarian regime being involved. There is, in any case, a disproportional number of movies about the future where that future is an unequivocally bad one— Children of Men, V for Vendetta, The Matrix, Blade Runner, and WALL-E, to name but a few.
Code 46, starring Tim Robbins, is a breath of fresh air: a well directed movie with an interesting future society that is well adjusted and decidedly sane and entirely not dystopian. In fact, so trained are we to correlate ‘futurism’ with ‘dystopia’ that viewers watch Code 46 expecting an ill force to appear, when nothing of the sort ever happens. Instead, it’s a movie about how the future might look, and that though it looks different, nothing has really changed. People are still people. The Code 46 model is rare, and it wasn’t applied to Ultraviolet. Ultraviolet doesn’t survive its aesthetic, but its aesthetic survives it. It’s a rare case of something legitimately good to come out of something unkempt and broken.