If reincarnation were real, and you were able to somehow hold on to your memories across lifetimes, you would experience an off-kilter version of immortality. Your body wouldn’t live forever, but your awareness would, accruing millennia of experiences while having to start over anew each time, seeing existence from a different perspective. Because it wouldn’t be easy to hold on to wealth, much less status, knowledge would be the main advantage. There would be endless opportunities to learn languages, crafts, and sports; to study science, philosophy, and art; to delve into hedonism and asceticism and consider the nature of humanity.
Or, you know, you could use those lifetimes to learn how to deflect bullets with a samurai sword, which is what Mark Wahlberg’s character seems to have done in the new movie Infinite. The really damning thing about this ability is that it doesn’t actually look cool.
Infinite begins by explaining its premise via voice-over in blunt, back-of-the-book terms: There are people who can remember everything from their past lives, who call themselves Infinites; some of them, the Believers, work toward the betterment of mankind, while others, the Nihilists, look to end existence as we know it. When a movie starts this way, it’s usually because test audiences or executives deemed its setup too confusing. Here, maybe a half-hour in, a character seems to confirm that by delivering, almost word for word, the same description of what’s going on. But what makes Infinite confounding isn’t the recalling of past lives but what it opts to do with that idea, which is to use it for an off-brand riff on superpowers. Wahlberg’s character, Evan Michaels, isn’t simply a guy who was born good at everything but just hasn’t figured it out yet; he’s the reincarnation of Heinrich Treadway (Dylan O’Brien), the Infinite who figured out how to unlock parts of his potential that allowed him to do things “that others might call paranormal, superhuman.”
Mostly, though, Infinite feels like a depressing fable about the movie industry. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the film is based on the novel The Reincarnationist Papers. Author D. Eric Maikranz self-published the book in 2009 with an eye on getting it adapted, which readers might have gleaned from the note on its first page promising a 10 percent cut to whoever could help him get a deal. Not the most dignified gambit, but it worked — at least to the point where the material could provide a nominal peg for Fuqua to assemble a string of shoot-outs and physics-free fight sequences so interchangeable they could be made modular and popped into or out of any big-budget action movie. As Evan, Wahlberg is meant to be playing a man plagued by memories that he has always assumed were hallucinations, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 14 after an incident of self-harm. But the movie and its star are so impatient with any character development that Wahlberg just feels as if he’s playing himself, tapping his watch in impatience while he waits for the moment he gets to fight drug deals with a katana forged using past-life know-how.
There’s cynicism all around, from Maikranz’s mercenary approach to the source material to the way the movie was sloughed off onto Paramount+ to the fact that Wahlberg, who once tried to get his teenage assault on two Vietnamese American men expunged from his record, is effectively playing an Asian man reborn in a white guy’s body. Infinite barely tries to make sense of its own timeline: A flashback to Heinrich driving desperately through Mexico City, having made off with the movie’s MacGuffin, looks like it takes place in the present day instead of closer to 1970, as Wahlberg’s age would demand. As the villain, Bathurst, Chiwetel Ejiofor waterboards himself with gasoline and shouts all of his lines with the zest of an actor who realizes that nothing he’s doing matters. Jason Mantzoukas shows up briefly and gloriously as a character known as the Artisan, who has devoted his Infiniteness to excess, which is indicated by his wearing eye makeup. Sophie Cookson plays Tammy, who is around largely to tangle with Bathurst’s henchwoman, a fellow blonde played by Wallis Day, in the climactic scene.
And that’s the thing about Infinite — it doesn’t just waste the potential of its premise; it’s actively square in its thinking about everything, up to and including matching up its two main women to fight. Bathurst wants to end the reincarnation cycle by exterminating not only humanity but all life on earth, yet if it’s possible to be reborn as something other than human, none of the characters mentions it. In the world of Infinite, characters don’t even appear to be reborn as anything other than the gender they’re assigned at birth. Evan has just been a series of dashing tough guys over the eons, and Tammy and her Infinite lover are a perpetually hetero couple who keep reuniting at Angkor Wat. The film makes an aesthetic gesture or two toward Buddhism, but its view of the reincarnation cycle is generally agnostic, with no sense that the way characters behave in their current lives has anything to do with the situation they’re born into next. The most interesting idea in the movie is that Bathurst has created a gun that downloads an Infinite’s consciousness onto a drive, leaving that person in a digital holding pattern, unable to be reborn. But even that’s only seen in passing, a means of upping the stakes, instead of a horror to be explored.
Evan’s journey is mostly one of self-actualization in which he does upside-down crunches and fight training and then undergoes an experimental procedure that resembles nothing so much as an elaborate dermatological treatment. Funny how much reconnecting with your past lives looks like a day in the life of a movie star, as though those are the limits of the imaginations of the major parties involved. All the yearning in the world for more original fare from Hollywood won’t matter if the original fare is made to look and feel like everything we’re already being bombarded with.