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Wouldn’t it be nice if we could edit our own lives, go back through the “footage” of our years and remove all of the embarrassing, sad, shameful and hateful moments? In a perfect world, perhaps, we’d be able to remember just what we wanted: every golden sunset, ever moment of empowerment, every true moment of happiness, would stand in greater relief without all of the “other stuff” to clog it up. We would be able to remember our first kiss forever, while completely forgetting every racist, sexist, despicable or stupid thing we ever did. It sounds pretty great, on the outside, but it’s also pretty foolish. Indeed, it’s often the bad stuff, the moments that we’re most ashamed of, that help us to grow the most, to form our worldviews and personalities. It’s impossible to know love without knowing hate: good doesn’t exist without the presence of evil. We know all of this, of course, but we’re also humans and humans, by default, are pretty foolish creatures. We’re always looking for the perfect, idealized version of ourselves, sometimes to the deficit (or destruction) of those around us. It’s just what we do, really.

Omar Naim’s Final Cut (2004) examines not only this particularly human phenomena but also the tendency to whitewash (or tar, depending on the situation) someone after they’ve died. Dead people have a difficult time defending themselves, after all, so it’s no difficult thing to proclaim someone as either “hero” or “goat” after they’re unable to do anything about it. While it’s always disheartening to see how quickly people will rush to dig up dirt on a newly dead celebrity, it’s no less worrisome to see how willing some folks are to deify undeserving people. After all, if the memories of a person’s bad deeds can be erased from the public conscience, doesn’t that, in some twisted way, absolve them of their actions? It’s an intriguing idea and one that the film examines, at some length, with rather varying degrees of success.

Alan (Robin Williams) is a “cutter” in the near-future, a craftsman charged with editing the lifelong memories of recently deceased people into attractive, bite-sized pieces that are perfectly suitable for hi-tech memorial services/funerals called Rememories. Alan is one of the best cutters in the business, which means that he’s particularly adept at cutting out all of the nasty little bits that would tend to be upsetting in a public setting: for every life accomplishment, Alan cuts out a memory of savagely beating one’s spouse…for every moment of infidelity, child abuse and hatred that Alan removes, he leaves in the moments of charity, love and joy. Essentially, Alan gives families the “gift” that they think they want: an idealized, pain-free memory of their deceased love ones. It’s similar to history books that skip over the ugly parts, in favor of a more homogeneous, white-washed version of events: if we don’t see them, they couldn’t have happened.

While he may be good at his job, Alan doesn’t seem like a particularly happy person. For one thing, he’s constantly tortured by half-lucid, childhood memories of his friend, Louis, dying: from what he can remember, Alan was explicitly responsible for Louis’ death but he just can’t remember enough about the incident to know one way or the other. As such, he walks around bearing the burden of crushing guilt for an incident that may not have even happened…at least the way he remembers it. Talk about a key to a happy life!

Alan’s life is further complicated when his “boss,” Thelma (Mimi Kuzyk) presents him with a new assignment: edit a suitable Rememory for Charles Bannister (Michael St. John Smith), the recently deceased executive who was intrinsically tied to the implant technology that allows people’s memories to be recorded. Charles was an important person, perhaps one of the most important in the “new world,” but he was also a monster, as Alan discovers when he comes across the terrible footage of Bannister molesting his young daughter, Isabel (Genevieve Buechner). Isabel’s mother, Jennifer Bannister (Stephanie Romanov) seems to be well-aware of the abuse, since he’s careful to keep Alan away from Isabel: she doesn’t want her “muddying” the waters, as it were. Bannister was a very important person and they need to ensure that the public remembers him as a technological innovator rather than the monster who routinely raped his own daughter.

To further complicate matters, there’s a heavily anti-implant faction in society, a group that fights for a return to the days when memories were personal and couldn’t be manipulated by corporations. One of Alan’s former cutting peers, Fletcher (Jim Caviezel), is deeply embedded with the protesters and wants Alan to break the tenets of his profession and get him Bannister’s uncut footage: if the general public can see the truth, Bannister won’t be deified and his horrible actions will be dragged into the light of day. Alan protests, as dedicated to his job as anyone who truly believes in their work but cracks are forming in his smooth veneer. When Alan finds out a secret about himself, a secret which automatically sets him at odds with his own profession and fellow cutters, he must decided whether to do the right thing or to follow the oath he took, regardless of how unjust it may be.

The Final Cut, first and foremost, is a very serious, somber film: just a few minutes in, it reminded me explicitly of Gattaca (1997), another ultra-serious, portentous science-fiction film. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a serious film, mind you, but The Final Cut ends up slingshoting past serious into a cinematic realm usually reserved for stuffy historical dramas or “big, important” pictures. Unfortunately, the film never becomes quite “big enough” to make these affectations seem anything more than pretentious. It’s kind of like getting Brian Eno to score a Roger Corman boobs-and-aliens-in-space epic: adding gravitas to a pulpy storyline doesn’t make the subject inherently weighty. Likewise, The Final Cut seems focused on big, intellectual issues yet the resolution still hinges on the kind of maudlin, sentimental “feelings” that the film (mostly) avoids for its running time.

The ending, on its own, ends up being a pretty massive problem, since it purports to morph the film into a completely different beast with the movie’s final 10 minutes: never the best place to “flip the script,” as it were, unless you’re going for a “twist ending.” The finale to The Final Cut is no twist: rather, it’s a non-ending that sort of shrugs its shoulders, leaving the audience to pull together any deeper meaning. Worse yet, the ending posits the highly insulting notion that everyone in the film knows what Alan wants more than he does. It’s the equivalent of spending twenty minutes trying to convince the ice cream man that you really do want vanilla and not strawberry before he hands you a double-scoop of strawberry, anyway.

Craftwise, The Final Cut has the exact same look/feel that I tend to associate with most “Dystopia-lite” films, although the presence of veteran cinematographer Tak Fujimoto definitely lends the proceedings some weight. Fujimoto, known for Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) and Silence of the Lambs (1992), among many, many, many others, doesn’t bring a ton of individuality to the film but there’s plenty of nice shots here, including some truly impressive overheads. Again, the whole thing tends to remind me rather overtly of Gattaca, but that could just be a by-product of the whole “independent, intelligent sci-fi” subgenre. The score, as a rule, is always ponderous and somber, as if we need constant reminding that this is a “serious” film with “big issues.” A lighter (or, at least, more subtle) approach might have been more effective but it is what it is.

Robin Williams, as befits his late-career “serious” roles, is completely subdued, almost to the point of blending into the background. It’s definitely not my favorite of his low-key performances but I’ll be honest: I’ll take a hundred “mediocre” performances like this to one of his obnoxiously manic “funny guy” personas. I’ve never been a fan of Williams when he gets truly wound-up and rewatching some of his more “classic” roles, such as Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Dead Poets Society (1989) showed me that he’s been guilty of this for some time. While Williams’ performance in The Final Cut is nowhere near as relevatory as his turns in One Hour Photo (2002), Insomnia (2002) or World’s Greatest Dad (2009), it’s still a nicely low-key performance that maintains a consistent pitch throughout the film. I’m not sure that Alan has much of an arc, to be honest, but it’s nice to get through a Williams’ film without getting “mugged” to death.

Aside from Williams, the rest of the cast ranges from capable to fairly anonymous. Mira Sorvino has a rather thankless role as Alan’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Delila, and Caviezel ends up being less than convincing as Fletcher, the former philistine who’s had his eyes opened to the evils of modern technology. To be fair, I’m rarely, if ever, blown away by Caviezel, who seems to underact to the point of non-acting. That being said, Fletcher is a rather confounding character and I’m not sure that anyone could have made him distinctive.

While The Final Cut isn’t a bad film (although it has a very bad ending), it’s also not a particularly interesting film. Any of the plot’s intriguing concepts (how would you act if you knew that everything you did would be recorded for the rest of your life?) become mundane by sheer repetition (a fact not helped by the tedious aural flashbacks that remind us of things we may have missed) and the whole thing is too glum and joyless to be much fun. While it’s interesting to think of our lives as one big editing project (like with film editing, Alan separates the footage into various categories, although his categories have names like “Masturbation,” “Personal Hygiene,” “Youth,” and “School”), I can’t really see the concept having much interest to anyone who’s not well-versed with the Final Cut editing program. Ultimately, The Final Cut ends up being so similar to other films that you might begin to wonder if someone hasn’t removed your memory of seeing it before. You probably haven’t but you’re sure gonna think you have.