Lynn Hershman Leeson’s quirky 2002 sci-fi spoof, Teknolust, is scheduled for DVD release from Microcinema in October. The film, which met with mixed to poor reviews back in the day—a 28% score on the Rotten Tomatoes meter, has become something of a cult favorite. Its feminist take on such familiar science fiction-horror tropes as the mad scientist, the experiment that gets out of hand, the creature that needs some kind of human substance for continued existence, and the machine that develops human qualities speaks directly to the post modern taste for irony. Vampires, Frankenstein monsters, robots: Teknolust weaves elements of them all into an extravagant send up of the genre.
EssentiallyTeknolust is the story of a frumpy, frustrated female computer scientist who creates a trio of cyborg avatars from her own DNA. The three women need continuing injections of male sperm to stay “alive,” so one of the women, symbolically costumed in red and named Ruby, is dispatched into the real world for nightly sperm hunting and gathering. Scenes from classic movies are used to program her with pick up lines and each successful climax is crowned with a cuddle. Things begin to go awry when the cyborgs become dissatisfied with their isolation and begin to exercise minds of their own. When the men who have been seduced by Ruby begin to break out in a strange disease, an investigation turns up some weird results.
If the reception of the movie itself was at first lackluster, the critical reaction to its star, Academy Award winner, Tilda Swinton, who plays all three of the cyborgs as well as their creator, was much better. Her performance was seen by many as an acting tour de force. And clearly, this film is an extraordinary opportunity for a fine actress to show her chops. She gets to play the passionless seductress, the naïf discovering the world of emotions, the repressed introvert, the dissatisfied rebel, the nurturing sister, and probably a few others as well. She is a blond, a redhead, and a brunette. She slinks about in color coordinated costumes, both stylish and sexy, or she wears a curly fright wig and stomps about in a matronly skirt and blouse. It is a role—or rather a set of roles—that any actress would jump at, and Swinton does it full justice.
The rest of the cast includes Jeremy Davies as a bungling nerd with a Jewish mother who makes borscht and looks to find him a girl. He tends to hang his head and shuffle a lot. James Urbaniak plays a stolid low key special agent. Karen Black is relatively wasted as Dirty Dick, a tough talking ex-agent who really doesn’t seem to have much reason for being in the film.
Like many satirical pieces, Leeson’s script is more often intellectually interesting than it is emotionally satisfying. There is little to empathize with in her characters. On the other hand, there are some really nice comic touches¸ little visual and verbal jokes that complement the film’s satirical thrust. The scientist’s name is Dr. Rosetta Stone. Ruby tries to pay for purchase with prophylactics. Her sexual conquests seem to have caught a computer virus. Dr. Stone’s cyborgs appear in her microwave oven. There is a comic homage to Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. When the cyborgs overhear Stone say that they are meant to do menial work, one insists: “No way, I don’t do windows.” These are the kinds of moments that give the film a lift. More of them, many more, would be welcome.
The DVD includes a discussion with Leeson and Tilda Swinton from 2009 after a showing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. There is also a short film of an art installation called DiNA, an artificial intelligence project in which Leeson was involved. A 2005 article by Jori Finkel in The New York Times says that DiNA originated in 2004 as a computer generated face communicated with through the keyboard. It has now evolved to voice recognition, and it is this evolution that is illustrated in the presentation on the DVD. Like Ruby in the film, DiNA uses the face of Tilda Swinton. DiNA, Leeson, told The Times, is smarter than Ruby, but men seem to like Ruby better.