Synthetic Pleasures (Iara Lee)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

You're experiencing one right now, actually: the pleasure of retrieving this review from a computer you've almost certainly never touched in your life. Iara Lee's documentary concerns the myriad ways in which technological innovation is changing our definition of "reality." Ah, the infamous "virtual reality," you're thinking to yourself, but that's merely the tip of Lee's iceberg: the film also examines such disparate subjects as plastic surgery; indoor beaches in Japan; drive-thru marriages in Vegas; the internet (with a predictable focus on cybersex); computer animation; and several others that I'm forgetting because I'm the only critic on the planet who doesn't take notes during the movie (sorry, too busy watching it). Any one of these topics could probably sustain a feature-length film -- certainly VR could -- and by ambitiously attempting to cover them all, Lee ensures that none will receive more than a cursory glance; Synthetic Pleasures sometimes feels like an adaptation of the introductory chapter of a textbook. In spite of this Reader's Digest approach, however, the film is consistently entertaining, and occasionally even thought-provoking. Lee doesn't seem to be advancing a particular point of view -- sound bites range from the giddily anticipatory to the grimly cautionary, with both the pro- and anti-techno voices receiving equal time (though the final voice is hopeful) -- and so the overall tone is one of simple wonder: Check out the world, man, it's gettin' weird. I've noted in other recent reviews of documentaries that compelling subject matter per se isn't sufficient, but this may be the fabled exception that proves the rule; it'd be damn near impossible to bore us with a snapshot of such momentous change. Imagine a contemporaneous documentary made about the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Synthetic Pleasures provides a broad overview of the next step.