PARANOIA: 1.0. Cyberpunk science fiction like a blend of Dick and Aronofsky

Paranoia 1.0 marks the feature debut of American director Jeff Renfroe and Icelandic filmmaker Marteinn Thorsson.

Maciej Kaczmarski

13 May 2024


Paranoia 1.0 – a modest science fiction film for thoughtful viewers – is definitely one of the best movies in this genre that has been made over the last two decades.

Simon is a computer programmer with a weakness for milk, working for a mysterious organization. One day, he finds a package in his apartment, but upon opening it, discovers that it’s empty. Soon, more empty packages arrive, and Simon begins to suspect that one of the eccentric residents in his building is sending them. Could it be Derrick, a middle-aged man engrossed in artificial intelligence in the form of an android head? Or perhaps the demonic neighbor, a designer of erotic video games set in virtual reality? Maybe it’s Trish, the nurse who appears in these games? The list of suspects also includes the slippery voyeur caretaker, the handyman Howard, and the courier Nile. Meanwhile, the media reports on a deadly virus epidemic and a series of brutal murders where victims are found brainless. All these cases seem to intertwine; Simon also discovers that his craving for a specific brand of milk is not random.


Paranoia 1.0 marks the feature debut of American director Jeff Renfroe and Icelandic filmmaker Marteinn Thorsson. The initial script version centered around a detective finding a child’s limb in his mailbox, but it was ultimately reworked – as Thorsson described – into a tale of “corporate control and loneliness.” Thanks to funding from the Icelandic Film Fund and support from producers in Germany, Romania, and the United States, a budget of $1.7 million was secured, enabling them to cast notable actors: Jeremy Sisto (Simon), Deborah Kara Unger (Trish), Udo Kier (Derrick), Bruce Payne (unnamed neighbor), Eugene Byrd (Nile), and Lance Henriksen (Howard). The film was shot entirely in Bucharest, with its completed version premiering at the Sundance Festival in January 2004. Paranoia 1.0 then circulated through various festivals worldwide, receiving numerous nominations and awards. However, it did not achieve mainstream popularity.

Renfroe and Thorsson acknowledged drawing inspiration from the works of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, futurist theories by Ray Kurzweil, and films such as “Peeping Tom” (1960) by Michael Powell, “The Trial” (1962) by Orson Welles, “Red Desert” (1964) by Michelangelo Antonioni, “Blade Runner” (1982) by Ridley Scott, and “Videodrome” (1983) by David Cronenberg. To this list, add literary masters of paranoia like Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick, alongside a handful of other films: “Brazil” (1985) by Terry Gilliam, “Delicatessen” (1991) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, “Seven” (1995) by David Fincher, “Lost Highway” (1997) by David Lynch, “Pi” (1998) by Darren Aronofsky, and “The Matrix” (1999) by the Wachowskis. These influences are evident yet creatively integrated, ensuring that Paranoia 1.0 is not merely a pale imitation or amalgamation of the aforementioned works. Furthermore, it stands out as thoroughly original and intriguing – despite occasional indications of its modest budget and the heavy-handedness of first-time directors.


Despite limited resources, the filmmakers succeeded in creating a convincing, oppressive world. Placing the action outside specific time and place lends a timeless quality – it could be the near future or an alternate reality. The Romanian settings – bleak buildings, dingy apartments, and seedy clubs, essentially the post-communist malaise familiar in Poland as well – align perfectly with the directors’ intentions. Thorsson explained, “What was meant to portray the collapse of a capitalist society became a portrait of a collapsing communist society, just as it was emerging as a capitalist entity.” Herein lies the essence of the film, which like many “serious” science fiction works, uses the genre’s conventions to explore philosophical and sociological issues. It does so without resorting to slick visuals, spaceships, or lightsabers.

Paranoia 1.0 is a darkly comedic dystopia about the discreet replacement of free will with corporate consumerism. Each character desires a specific product (milk, cola, meat, etc.), but these desires are not their own; they are the effects of a nanotechnological experiment orchestrated by undisclosed, powerful forces. In the face of these alienating forces, individuals have practically no chance for freedom and independence, a notion starkly illustrated in the grim finale. For those pondering the validity of long-term, subconscious behavioral training, consider the following questions: why do people still succumb to changing fashions and dress in specific ways? Why smoke cigarettes, consume liquid sugar, and watch mediocre films and series? Why is streaming so popular, advertisements so ubiquitous, and brands and logos so significant? Are our choices truly our own, or are algorithms behind them? More milk?