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Reinventing Reality

movie Hard Hat: The near future will pack a world of entertainment into a headset, according to "Synthetic Pleasures."

'Synthetic Pleasures' explores the virtual future

By Heather Zimmerman

HAPPILY, THE SLICK, techno-infused documentary Synthetic Pleasures doesn't merely offer another venture into the uncharted wilds of cyberspace, although that's inevitably where it ends up. On the way to its inescapable virtual destination, however, the film provides a provocative tour of the unique and occasionally peculiar culture that has grown up around modern technology. Synthetic Pleasures contends that we're slowly reinventing reality--particularly nature and our environment--a trend especially apparent in the sanitized and convenient versions of nature we're now able to create, such as an indoor, snow-covered "mountain" designed for year-round skiing.

The film suggests that such re-creations of nature may soon be as appealing as the real thing, perhaps even more so, not to mention more readily accessible. The most powerful example this reinvention of nature is Japan's Ocean Dome, a giant indoor amusement park that re-creates a tropical beach, complete with computer-generated typhoons. The film also uses a quick journey through Las Vegas, focusing on casinos like the Egyptian-themed Luxor and Caesar's Palace, to note that a walk along the Strip is becoming akin to a trip both around the world and through history.

From there, Synthetic Pleasures turns to humans, casting a curious look at everything we can now do to transform our bodies, from plastic surgery to smart drugs to genetic engineering and cryonics. Orlan, a French performance artist, takes plastic surgery to a unique extreme when she asks her doctor to place implants in her forehead so that it will resemble that of the Mona Lisa. Robert Ettinger, the president of the Cryonics Institute, talks about freezing people with terminal illnesses and reviving them when there's a cure, showing us his resurrected dog as proof.

The chances for transformation seem limitless. As if to demonstrate such transformations, Synthetic Pleasures turns to more and more computer-generated footage, particularly clips depicting impossibly altered--often faceless--incarnations of the human body. Unfortunately, the film becomes mired in a profusion of computer-animated images that lose much of their potential meaning when linked together in a number of seemingly endless sequences.

Even though there are lots of interviews with experts or trailblazers in the field of technology, often it's only their words that we hear, voiced-over other footage and clips of computer-generated images. These disembodied voice-overs generally provide compelling thoughts and information, but without the visual context of a speaker, the words seem like abstract thoughts, pieces of random information put forth by the film rather than the ideas and opinions of individuals. By the end, Synthetic Pleasure's distinctively artificial aspects give the impression that you may have already entered the virtual, futuristic world that the film proposes.

Synthetic Pleasures(Unrated; 83 min.), a documentary by Iara Lee, produced by George Gund.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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