Review: 'Amelia 2.0' gains new (artificial) life

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If you could turn a play into a movie, should you? Yes — if that play is Rob Merritt’s compelling sci-fi drama, “The Summerland Project.”

It’s a story that takes most of the fiction out of science fiction. Set in the near future, it begs the question: If you could transfer a human mind from a body at the brink of death into a robotic replica, should you?

Where does humanity begin and end?

Renamed “Amelia 2.0” in a nod to the realm of artificial intelligence, “The Summerland Project” moves beautifully from stage to screen. Local audiences will get the first glimpses when the 90-minute film debuts at 7 p.m. Friday (8/4) at Collins Road Theatres in Cedar Rapids. It then launches into a regular run at the multiplex, beginning with a 9:15 show that night.

The play, which premiered at Theatre Cedar Rapids in November 2011, takes on a new cinematic life as “Amelia 2.0.” Deftly directed by Adam Orton of Cedar Rapids, the film preserves the essence of the original story, while giving viewers deeper visual glimpses into the lives lost and recreated for Amelia and Carter Summerland.

Their world of tender kisses and walks through idyllic meadows is torn apart when Amelia, 26, suffers a brain aneurysm, plunging her into a comatose purgatory. She’s barely alive but far from living her life as a young schoolteacher in love with her hero cop whose life is on the line every time he puts on his uniform. Both lives are put on hold as she lies in a hospital bed for two years, wide-eyed, but not seeing.

Enter unctuous power player Paul Wesley, the financier behind the medical/robotics experimentation that could bring her back to life. Veteran Hollywood actor Ed Begley Jr. embodies Wesley with just the right touch of greed poking holes in his humanitarian veneer.

His heart beats green, with dollar signs dancing through his brain.

Angela Billman of Cedar Rapids, who played Amelia when “The Summerland Project” moved to the Theatre Cedar Rapids main stage in January 2013, flows seamlessly from stage distance to movie close-ups. She has an innocence that allows Amelia to evolve from blank-staring robot to fully functioning, fully feeling human. But is she human? That question is never far from the viewer’s mind.

Billman gives Amelia such heart, that when Carter turns away, everyone’s heart breaks. Hollywood actor Ben Whitehair brings a palpable anguish to Carter, who must take a gut-wrenching leap of faith to turn his wife over to Wesley Enterprises, then grapple with the creeped-out dilemma of whether this robot that looks, speaks and feels like his wife is, indeed, his wife reborn and reanimated.

The morality of the situation comes into full view via right-wing senator Thaddeus Williams, R-Iowa, who rails against the abomination of man playing God. Chris Ellis (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Apollo 13” and “Armageddon”) asks all the tough questions, and gives the senator enough heart to keep him from being the bully voice of doom.

Kate Vernon (Ellen Tigh on “Battlestar Galactica”) is the neuroscientist behind the efforts to restore hope when hope is dying. Her heart also holds an anguish that pumps passion into her research.

Eddie Jennison (“Ocean’s Eleven” to “Thirteen” and “Chicago Med”) turns in one of the most intriguing performances as the robotics engineer who turns his attention from creating companion bots in sexy lingerie to giving Amelia 2.0 a life that blurs the lines of reality.

But it’s another star moving from background to foreground that will especially delight local audiences. “The city looks beautiful in the film,” Billman said in a recent Gazette interview. And indeed, it does.

As with “Miles from Home” and “The Final Season,” Eastern Iowans will delight in seeing the familiar landscape and landmarks shimmering on the big screen, as well as seeing their friends and neighbors in crowd scenes and close-ups.

Collins Road Theatres will be showing the premiere on several screens. Don’t miss this chance to revel in the questions that are closer to reality than to fiction.

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