Friday, June 23, 2017

ARES (2016)

There's something almost quaintly old-fashioned about the dystopia imagined by writer-director Jean-Patrick Benes in Ares. His dark future has nothing to do with French politics or demographics, haunted by neither a Muslim underclass nor the National Front. Instead, as was widely anticipated in the late 20th century, the corporations have taken over, with more widespread poverty and the further debasement of French culture as a result -- the latter signified by the death of Le Monde, France's answer to the New York Times. The rabble, as ever, are preoccupied by circuses if not also with bread. Cage fighting has become the leading spectator sport, made available for free on big screens hung from the country's cultural monuments. Fighters are openly sponsored by pharmaceutical companies whose stock value depends on their success in the cage. The competitors are injected with each corporation's proprietary serums in the open before each bout and sometimes between rounds.

Reda Kowalski (Ola Rapace) is about a decade past his prime, ranked #266 in France as the story begins. He fights under the ring name "Ares" when he isn't working as a private-security goon pounding on street protesters, who include his own relatives. His sister is some sort of investigative reporter or hacker who ends up getting arrested in an obvious frame-up. To raise bail money for her, Reda agrees to test a dangerous new super-fighter serum in the cage. It turns out that he's one of the lucky few who can take the drug without dying almost instantly, and there's no guarantee that he'll survive the comedown from his initial high. The stuff works well enough for Ares to score a major upset in the first round of the latest European tournament, and once Reda wakes up after fainting with no ill effects, stock in the company skyrockets. Having bet the farm on himself by proxy, Reda can now spring his sister, but learns that she was killed in prison. C'est la vie.

Reda smells a set-up and soon learns the terrible truth. He knows that he is "patient zero" for the new drug, the first test subject to survive, but thanks to some hackers who were friends with his sister he discovers that the corporation had killed 30,000 people with the stuff before they found him. He takes his revenge by twisting one of the ancient tropes of the fight-game genre and throwing his next fight in the tournament, causing the corporate stock to tank. He's too valuable for them to let him walk away, so their goons take his sister's kids hostage to bring him back in line. Suspecting that he'd refused to take the drug before the last fight, they want to continue experimenting with him, but they've underestimated the cunning of Reda's new friends and how far Reda himself will go to deny them what they want....

For a dystopian film Ares ends rather optimistically with its hero the hero of a presumably successful mass uprising against the corporate regime. It's nice that Benes and his co-writers believe that the masses would be aroused by Reda's story, but it also demonstrates the limits of their dystopian imagination. That aside, Ares is a modestly entertaining cyberpunk variation on oldtime boxing movies. It's clearly limited by a budget that doesn't allow the cage fights to play out before masses of extras in an arena. I'm not sure if the sport would catch on as the filmmakers claim it did without the enthusiasm of a live crowd for TV audiences to respond to, but I suppose you could call it a live version of any fighting-tournament video game, none of which need audiences to get over. The fighting itself is nothing special, but I suppose it doesn't need to be, since Ares is more film noir than martial arts movie in the final analysis. The plot is more compelling than the action, but not compelling enough to hide the datedness of its dystopia. The same film could have been made a quarter-century ago, and while I certainly don't mean to disparage anyone's fear of corporations taking over the world, I do doubt whether that's the subject for any really ambitious dystopian film in our own, already somewhat dystopian time.

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