1996, NR, 83 min. Directed by Iara Lee.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 27, 1996
Artificial intelligence. Virtual reality. Smart drinks. Molecular nanotechnology. Cybersex. Welcome to Synthetic Pleasures, the movie that wants to be our tour guide to the future. This intriguing documentary begins with the premise that our ever-growing ability to control our universe is creating an artificial sense of reality that is quickly supplanting the real McCoy. Fascinating subject matter, all these questions and their implications. Synthetic Pleasures attempts to be an impartial witness to these imaginings of the future, yet it more closely resembles a cautionary tale. Synthetic Pleasures is the Mondo Cane of cyberspace -- a titillating peek at various bizarre phenomena that, despite some viewer reluctance, has everyone leaving the theatre humming “More.” Very little of Synthetic Pleasure's footage was shot directly for this film; the documentary is primarily an assemblage of extraneous material culled from various corporate and scientific archives. And to that extent, the final composition of the film owes as much to the happenstance of discovered footage as any overriding structural intent of the filmmaker. Still, the film is consistently fascinating to watch as it ponders such questions as whether anyone in the future will interact directly with nature when virtual reality can perfect the experience while also removing all risk and chance. Or for that matter, with so many different realties to choose from, who will choose to experience their own? Interviews with numerous thinkers and activists in the field also help bring some of these concepts into sharp focus. Some speakers include John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; R.U. Sirius, editor of Mondo 2000; Timothy Leary, counterculture guru; Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community; and Orlan, a French performance artist whose body is her artwork and for whom plastic surgery is her technique. Synthetic Pleasures sprawls all over the place in its quest to confront the future. The rigorous-minded viewer may desire a bit more order to the film's neural onslaught. The armchair spectator and weekend theorist will probably find themselves happily swept away on a magic carpet ride.