Sundance Review: THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY - Invent The Legend At All Costs

A somewhat typical documentary that feels incomplete.

“Fake it ‘till you make it.” You hear this phrase a few times throughout The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. It’s not hard to understand why as that’s the film’s entire premise. This is the story of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who believes in herself and her mission so hard that she puts it ahead of all morals and reality. The kicker is not the evil behind this philosophy but rather the proof that it truly can take you almost all the way. World-changing success may even require that sort of mentality. But you can only fake it so long. If that totally willed self-confidence does not deliver you to the results you think you deserve, the jig will eventually be up. For every genius who never quit, there are probably a few dozen who should have.

The details in this particular case are somewhat secondary, but they revolve around Elizabeth Holmes, “inventor” of some hypothetical technology that can test one drop of blood for up to 200 different ailments, thus eliminating painful blood draws and expensive lab test at your family doctor’s office. This box, dubbed “The Edison”, minimizes the work of an entire, massive medical industry to the size of an old school computer.

It’s a great idea. A daring idea. The kind of idea naysayers would call impossible. It also doesn’t work. But Holmes is a dreamer, driven by an obsession with Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, visionaries whose failures ultimately led to successes that altered their known world. They didn’t listen to doubters and neither will Holmes. Even when the limitations of physics and technology begin asserting themselves, she remains steadfast and unrelenting. It’s remarkable even when it crosses over into criminal.

Holmes is undoubtedly an arresting presence. She has gigantic, piercing eyes (the film points out early on that she never blinks, as if to challenge to viewers to catch her), and an unexpected deep voice. She wears identical black outfits daily. She is, to put it in a way more favorable than it sounds, compellingly weird, charming and confident enough that you almost want to be on her side.

That’s The Inventor’s one great strength: even in a cautionary tale told with plenty of hindsight, it offers viewers just enough to put themselves in the shoes of those who fell for Holmes’ fraud themselves (on a very broad level, this includes seemingly everyone from Barack Obama to Errol Morris). It’s terrifying, as there’s little defense against her early efforts to inspire. If the Silicon Valley system raises money on ideas and theater rather than data, how is anyone to know if those ideas are no good until the costly experiment has failed?

Holmes is such a curious subject. She does not seem driven by evil motivators like power or greed. Her primary mission is to elevate herself by doing something positive for the world. It doesn’t really matter what form that takes, but the idea she lands on has a certain logic to it, even if it never works and actual doctors make it pretty clear why the Edison would be a bad idea even if it did. Later examinations of her divorce from reality instantly call to mind the pathological dishonesty of Donald Trump, but they aren’t quite the same if only because Trump appears motivated by insecurity while Holmes’ extreme confidence appears absolute, if delusional. Holmes doesn’t exactly start off bad. The more reality confronts her delusion, the more Holmes succumbs to immorality, not out of malice from her perspective but to achieve a benevolent (albeit, highly lucrative) goal worth any transgression. 

Unfortunately, all these interesting elements do not quite justify the film’s two-hour-long running time. Once things start getting bad for Holmes, her commentary disappears and the film loses its most compelling element. The broad narrative is more or less prewritten by the synopsis, so it’s mostly a matter of watching it all play out with few shocks or bright moments. It’s more entertaining than reading a Wikipedia entry but nevertheless stays pretty bland throughout. Its attempts at cinematic expression are also a bit overdone, almost as if the film itself is a Silicon Valley upstart wowing us with flashiness. When portraying blood draws or the simulated blood testing problems within the Edison, for instance, the film opts for gory gratuitousness that feels intentionally humorous and accidentally humorous at the same time. 

More than anything, however, the documentary’s events are just too recent, robbing Holmes’ story of an ending. On one hand, there are nice implications to the idea that she might not be done with her run as an entrepreneur yet. On the other, you just watched an overly long documentary with no definitive conclusion.