Thursday, September 22, 2011

ZONE 39 (1996) - if number 39 is such an Orwellian dystopia, zones 1-38 must be a humanity obliterating joke

Distilled to its essence, Zone 39 is about a technological society being able to get away with evil acts through the control of information. Apparently, there was an accidental chemical spill that has contaminated Zone 39, a desolate border region that looks a lot like the Australian outback (because it is the Australian outback dummy, but hey, that’s production value; some bang for your movie buck). Since the only potential victims are “workers and peasants”, the bureau in charge of disseminating all information to the population decides these lives are not worth the potential embarrassments and lawsuits and what-have-you, so they bury the story by simply not reporting it. Since the media is completely centralized, they can get away with this shit. After all, if you control all information, you control the truth.

The information bureau (or whatever it was called in the movie…you get the idea) is pretty hell bent on keeping their hold on something this scandalous. As it happens, an employee of the bureau, a computer security expert, is dicking around at work out of boredom when she decides to hack her way to some secret information, possibly more interested in exploring her field of specialty first hand than whatever number crunching she was supposed to be doing. Lo and behold, she stumbles upon the information about the contamination in Zone 39, that over 400 people have already died, with many more to come. Her supervisor yells at her for screwing around with her computer (not literally sicko) on the clock. The punishment continues when the company has her murdered as she rides the subway home. If that wasn’t enough, she was pregnant at the time. Perhaps there would’ve been a less evil way of dealing with this issue, but I guess they wanted to be thorough.

Well, her husband happens to be a lieutenant in the army (or an equivalent), and he is none to happy to find out that his wife was murdered. Her supervisor is nice enough to explain to him why his wife and child were murdered. Needless to say, he’s pretty pissed about the whole thing, and quickly becomes disillusioned with his government. Our hero then decides to take a border patrol position in Zone 39, despite the incredible risk involved (it was considered extremely dangerous even before it became contaminated). Presumably, he wants to make sure that his wife’s death was not in vain, and hopefully right an unspeakable wrong from a “system” that he is apart of.

Like many dystopian science fiction heroes, our protagonist (Peter Phelps, who is very good) goes from dutiful worker from within the system to a man trying to destroy this system. His character is believable during this transition, clearly conflicted throughout, and not simply on a blind quest to do the right thing. He is also haunted by his wife (Carolyn Bock, also bringing it) both literally and figuratively, since he periodically takes some virtual reality drug that works with some metal earpiece (I didn’t catch the details, alas), and this allows him to spend time with an illusory version of his wife. Instead of interacting with either a fantasy version of her, or directly linking to past memories, Peter imagines her as if she did indeed come back from the dead, and they discuss the fact that she has indeed passed on, the injustice of the zone fiasco, all while she occasionally nurses their dead baby. Peter has an ongoing conversation with his recently deceased wife, much like how it would realistically play out within one’s mind, only aided and further comforted by a physical manifestation.

There are even more elements and allegories within the movie I’ve yet to mention. If there is a major fault to Zone 39, it is that there is far too much going on within a 90 minute runtime. We are thrust into this universe via a virtual reality sequence, and are further exposed to a world with its own social and political structure, and its own technologies (like the virtual reality device and the unmentioned health indicator and other stuff), which is then split off into separate realities and multiple allegories. We are left trying to figure out the world itself, let alone what is happening within this world. It’s a bit like being thrust into a series like Max Headroom a couple of episodes in, left without exposition as to how the world and its technology work. Zone 39 feels like a six episode first season of a great science fiction show cut down to 90 minutes. Keeping with the Max Headroom comp
arison, there is a bit of a late 80’s/early 90’s cyberpunk feel, despite the movie being firmly planted in science fiction dystopia. While the budget is obviously low, it mostly doesn’t detract, and instead suitably reflects a dirty and rusty technological future, one which bluntly mirrors our own.

P.S. This was written as part of Project Terrible over at Mondo Bizarro. This particular movie was selected by Wolf Ninja over at Gaming Creatively. Check both out by making some clickey action. This movie more qualifies as a dirty hidden gem, so I gotta assume that the “terrible” part comes into play while viewing the terrible DVD cover, which looks like this:

Fuck you Hollywood. I don't know if you're specifically responsible (probably not), but fuck you anyway.


  1. Honestly, the terrible part came in by viewing the description, the awful cover, and the first 5 minutes or so, all of which seemed to be setting up something completely and totally inept. I could've sworn this would end up being an absolutely wretched piece of cinema. But hey, if it was actually good, that's fine. I'll just get you next time. ^_^ I must get revenge for Ninja's Creed!

  2. @Wolfie

    Yeah, I could see that. I guess I just lead a charmed life. ;)