Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

Hybrids: a hybrid short film of too many cliches and stereotypes

Patrick Kalyn, “Hybrids” (2013)

This sci-fi live action short seems to have been made as a proof-of-concept film to promote an idea for a television series to film studio executives. In six minutes, a devoted mother (Daniella Evangelista), stunned to discover her daughter Abby (Kaitlyn Bernard) mutilated to death by mysterious strangers only moments after the girl kissed Mum goodbye in their garden, has become a vigilante soldier dedicated to wiping out the horde of insectoid critters responsible for the child’s death in a post-apocalyptic urban environment. Most of the film is taken up by the mother being attacked by and beating the living daylights out of the monsters with a variety of weapons. Using some ingenious hologram technology, the mother tricks a swarm of creatures into attacking her image and blows them up. She knows however that there are far, far more of those monsters where they came from and the next day will be like the previous day: she will continue hunting them and killing them until one day they will all be dead.

For a short film, the special effects and the cinematography are quite good, and what acting does appear looks adequate for the task. The music is the usual cliched Hollywood orchestral schmaltz so the less said about it, the better. Unfortunately the narrative is very stereotyped and derivative: Mum is clearly modelled on the Sarah Connor character made famous by Linda Hamilton in The Terminator series of movies. How the mother came to be such a mighty warrior skilled in handling a variety of firearms, throwing knives and swords, and karate-chopping her enemies isn’t explained very well. The monsters don’t seem very intelligent: they are looking for a “key” that is possessed only by humans and which appears to be part of their genetic make-up so they insist on killing humans to extract what they need. If one assumes the monsters came from outer space, they surely would have the intelligence (or at least the intelligence that enabled them to build the spacecraft to travel to Earth) to try to co-operate with humans to identify the “key” and try to reproduce it themselves.

The final shot of the film presents an ambiguity: some of the monsters are clearly working with humans and at this point, the realisation dawns on this viewer that the monsters already contain some human genetic material combined with other non-human genetic material. Whether the female soldier is allied with these monsters and armed humans or not remains unknown. The whole film though presents an idea that is not at all original, relies too much on physical conflict and violence, and the special effects to make this happen, and uses a plot filled with cliches about family, revenge and survival in a quarantined city. The notion of humans and extraterrestrial creatures working in tandem to eliminate other humans – perhaps because those humans don’t wish to serve as slaves to an elite in a hierarchical society – is also not original. There are too many tired stereotypes and recycled ideas in this film short and the concept it promotes most likely needs retiring.

Pain and Glory: a self-referential film of an artist entering a winter of discontent

Pedro Almodovar, “Pain and Glory” (2019)

A film investigating how creation can be inspired by personal memories and suffering, “Pain and Glory” is a fiction biographical drama, whereby director Almodovar, seemingly on the verge of his twilight years as a director and artist, might be seen as taking stock of his career and the themes that have informed his body of work. In comparison with past work, “Pain and Glory” appears as quite a sombre film though there is still plenty of colour and visual artistic style, and the acting is very restrained.

At the beginning of “Pain and Glory”, famous writer and film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) has been living hermet-like in his Madrid mansion for several years, his depression and various physical health problems preventing him from doing the work he has long loved to do. During this time he has been caring for his aged mother Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) in her final years. Her death, and a film retrospective dedicated to his past work, featuring his break-out film that also gave actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) his best-known role, prompt Mallo to contact Crespo despite the two not having spoken to each other for 32 years after a bad fall-out during that film’s production. The meeting with Crespo introduces Mallo to heroin, to which the film director becomes addicted after smoking the drug helps to relieve his chronic pains and puts him in a reverie during which past childhood memories return to him. Thereafter, throughout the film, Mallo smokes heroin to rediscover aspects of his childhood of 50 years ago, during which he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move into a grotto that his impoverished father has been able to find in a village and which Jacinta spruces up with the help of local youth Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) who, in exchange for lessons from Salvador in learning to read and write, paints and tiles the walls.

During a later visit to Mallo’s tastefully decorated house, Crespo finds a script “Addiction” that Mallo put aside some years ago and wants to perform it on stage. “Addiction” happens to be about a past lover who had been addicted to heroin and suffered greatly for it. Mallo initially refuses but some time afterwards – and especially after a disastrous Q&A session at the film retrospective during which Mallo and Crespo fight – he relents and Crespo performs the work. By sheer coincidence, a former flame of Mallo’s, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the subject of “Addiction” no less, is visiting Madrid from Buenos Aires, has seen a flyer for the performance, and sees the show. Crespo puts Federico in contact with Mallo and the two meet again, perhaps for the last time. Federico tells Mallo that he got off the heroin, married an Argentine girl, had a family with her and is running a successful restaurant business with his two sons.

After meeting Federico, Mallo resolves to give up the heroin and sort out his medical issues. While waiting for surgery, he and his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) visit an art gallery and discover a picture of himself as a child hanging in the gallery. He buys the picture and reads a message on the back of the canvas – written by none other than Eduardo, all those 50 years ago. This remarkable coincidence helps him to resolve to take up film-making once again.

Banderas puts in a remarkable virtuoso performance as Mallo in all his suffering and his petty, self-obsessed behaviour, and the rest of the cast does good work. The flashbacks to Mallo’s past are well done, though an element of mischievous surprise comes at the very end which puts those flashbacks in another light and explains why Jacinta’s eyes seem to change colour as she ages! Apart from the performances and the arresting visual style of the film (which of course indicates good cinematography among other things), there really isn’t much in the film’s narrative that would elevate it to the status of a great film: viewers are no better informed at the end of the film than at the beginning what made Mallo a great film director or his break-out film with Crespo the remarkable work that it was. How Crespo faded out as an actor is not explored; indeed the character disappears from “Pain and Glory” around the halfway point of the film. The episode with Federico is brief and after that character leaves, the film’s narrative marches on to another topic with no more reference to Crespo, Federico and whatever they inspire Mallo to do next.

One gets the impression that “Pain and Glory” is no more than an ordinary and banal story about an artist having a creative mid-life crisis and making a huge fuss out of it. As one character, Dr Galindo (Pedro Casablanc) says, “there are people worse off than you [Mallo]” and that could be advice someone already gave to Almodovar.

Farming: fictional biographical drama ignores its wider social context

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Farming” (2018)

“Farming” is a fictional biographical drama based on actor / director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s childhood growing up in Britain as a foster child parked with a working-class white family by his Nigerian parents in the 1960s / 70s. The practice in which Nigerian parents fostered out their children with white families in Britain grew out of traditional practices in parts of sub-Saharan Africa in which families sent their children to other families in other communities, often to pay off debts or to fulfill family or clan obligations, which would bring up those children as if they were their own or educate them in skills and knowledge that the birth families hoped would give the children social or other advantages when they became adults. Nigerian families in the mid-20th century, living in a country newly independent from British colonial status, neither saw nor anticipated the consequences that might come when they fostered their children with white families in Britain. In the case of Enitan (played by Zephan Hanson Amissah and then Damson Idris), the boy is fostered out by parents Femi and Tolu (director Akinnuoye-Agbaje himself and Genevieve Nnaji respectively) to a white couple Ingrid and Jack Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale and Lee Ross) living in Tilbury, a post-industrial working-class district in London. The Carpenters end up fostering Enitan’s two younger sisters and several other Nigerian children to get social security money, but this means the couple cannot give Enitan the love and sense of stability and belonging he needs. As the other fostered children are girls, they behave perfectly but Enitan is a dreamy boy given to playing with imaginary friends, living in a community where being a boy and being artistic and dreamy do not mix.

As he grows up, Enitan experiences a continual loss of identity and culture shocks due to constant racist bullying at school and subtle bullying at home, combined with his birth parents’ sudden appearance from nowhere to take him back home to Nigeria where he is beaten by a teacher for speaking only English at school and subjected to cultural practices he does not understand and which would be considered severe physical abuse in Western societies. His embarrassed parents dump him back with Ingrid and Jack and so the racism and bullying start again and escalate into his adolescent years. At the age of 16 years Enitan is suspended from school and through a series of harrowing incidents ends up joining a racist skinhead gang known as the Tilbury Skins, led by Levi (John Dalgleish). By this time Enitan has truly embraced his self-hatred and hatred of anyone and everyone who is not white.

While Idris, Beckinsale and Dalgleish give excellent performances – Dalgleish just about chews up every scene in which he is in, and only a python really threatens to steal his scenes from him – the film’s plot itself is something of a let-down. Enitan’s adventures with the skinheads are a dreary string of violent incidents in which the Tilbury Skins torment anyone and everyone who they don’t like the look of, including other skinheads. In this part of the film, one stereotype after another regarding the skinheads and their culture is paraded; why Enitan continues to stay with these people in spite of the continual dumping he experiences is hard to understand. Levi and the other guys in the gang surely see something in Enitan that they respect and admire, otherwise they would not allow him to tag along for fear of being attacked by other racist skinhead gangs. One paradox present at this point in the film is that when the skinheads visit their favourite pubs, also patronised by other skinheads, the music playing in the background is usually reggae, dub or ska – all music originating among Jamaican black people!

Eventually Enitan is rescued from skinhead culture by Ingrid and a saintly school-teacher (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but the scenes in which Enitan is deprogrammed, learns that people do care for him and comes to accept himself as he is, and makes his peace with Ingrid and Jack, race by very quickly. The unfortunate result is that Enitan’s re-entry into society as a normal person seems very superficial and just as stereotyped as his acceptance into the Tilbury Skins. For that matter, the film’s portrayal of skinheads and skinhead culture as racist, degraded and brutish is just as one-dimensional: the reality is that during the 1970s / 80s, skinheads embraced all political, social and cultural points of view (thus explaining their liking for Jamaican immigrant and Jamaican British culture and music) and the stereotype of skinheads as white supremacist neo-Nazi thugs is a creation of British mainstream media at the time catering to middle class dislike and distrust of working-class people.

By concentrating on one character’s loss of and search for his identity and a community he can call his own, “Farming” ignores other related issues. Ingrid herself is a Gypsy and the discrimination and violence that Gypsies have traditionally suffered in Britain (and still do) are hinted at very faintly in the film. How and why Levi and his fellow skins are outsiders in the Tilbury community – they are shown living in a rubbish dump – is not explained in the film. Most disturbing of all, the film shows working-class people in the worst possible light as racist, ignorant and violent, and ignores the political, economic and social changes in post-Thatcherite Britain that have marginalised and impoverished working-class people, to be mocked by the middle classes, in the process turning the working class into the nightmare the middle classes fear so much.

The Kid: minimalist proof-of-concept short that raises intriguing questions about its themes and issues

Nicholas Wenger, “The Kid” (2018)

“The Kid” is a six-minute proof-of-concept film made to demonstrate the potential of certain themes and issues that a longer and more specific screenplay, currently being written at the time of this review, will address. The main characters, Shelby (Ellen Wroe) and Asa (Evan Alex), are on the run from the authorities in downtown Los Angeles. They turn down an alley in a slum neighbourhood and discover they have hit a dead end. The men chasing them look like a gang of thugs but could also be plainclothes police officers or security officers working for a private company in disguise. The men all on Shelby but the woman bravely fights back with a strength far beyond what her slim slight figure is capable of and with martial arts skills that would require several lifetimes to achieve. After flooring two men, she is shot in the forehead at point blank range by the group’s leader and she slumps dead to the ground. The men beckon Asa to come with them; he will do but only after he pays his respects to Shelby first by holding her hand. One of the surviving men holds Asa’s other hand to take him but then discovers that a strange force is taking over him and sucking the life out of him …

The action is fast paced with very minimal dialogue and viewers can have a lot of fun guessing at how and why Shelby and Asa came to be together and why they are being pursued. Is the superhuman power Asa demonstrates in the short film the only one he has or does he have other strange and incredible powers as well? Can his power/s be used for committing evil acts as well as good ones? Are there others like Asa who literally have the power of transferring and bestowing life on some people by denying it to others? What might some of the consequences of such a power be? It seems that Shelby has been a fortunate recipient of others’ life-force: how might receiving others’ life energy affect her in the long run? Will she suffer any life-threatening side effects? And who are the people who want what Asa has?

Wroe and Alex do good work in establishing their characters’ loyalty to one another and the interdependence that exists between them. He relies on her to protect him and she relies on him as well. Apart from this, the film looks very workman-like with the level of cinematography and minimal characterisation expected for an action thriller sci-fi short.

Official Secrets: a modest fictional dramatisation of a whistleblower’s ordeal

Gavin Hood, “Official Secrets” (2019)

As fictional dramatisations of real events go, “Official Secrets” passes muster in its narrative of a translator working for the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) who follows her conscience and becomes a whistleblower to try to stop an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands if not millions of people will die. Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), working as a Chinese-to-English translator in early 2003, is sent an email memo from a senior official at the United States National Security Agency asking for GCHQ support in its attempts to spy on United Nations Security Council members Angola, Bulgaria, Chile,Cameroon, Guinea and Pakistan so as to obtain information that could be used to blackmail these countries into voting for resolutions favouring the US and its goals and objectives. At the time, the US government was preparing to invade Iraq to depose its leader, President Saddam Hussein, on the basis that his government still possessed illegal chemical weapons. Believing that making the memo public would expose the underhanded tactics being used by the US and the UK governments to pressure the UN into approving an invasion and war, Gun leaks the memo to a friend who is acquainted with Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a journalist with The Observer newspaper.

After verifying that the memo, written by Frank Koza, is genuine, Bright and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans), an American news correspondent, convince the newspaper editor to publish their report which makes front-page news a month after Gun had given the memo to her friend. GCHQ then goes on the warpath to find out who leaked the memo; after the staff go through a round of questioning and then are forced to go through another round, Gun gives herself up. She and her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish national on a temporary visa, are subjected to continuous hounding by the authorities which include Yasar being held by police for deportation.

The US invasion of Iraq goes ahead regardless of the UN Security Council’s decision not to approve it and Gun is released. She contacts human rights organisation Liberty whose lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) agrees to defend her if the British government charges her with treason under the Offical Secrets Act. Sure enough, several months later charges are brought against Gun and she and Emmerson agree that she will plead on a defence of necessity, that breaching the Act of necessary to stop an illegal war from going ahead.

The narrative suffers from breaks in continuity and points of view but otherwise it rockets along at a fairly fast pace which maintains the tension and keeps viewer attention riveted to the screen and Gun’s fate. The actors do good work with the script and give convincing performances, though some of Knightley’s lines do seem more like sloganeering advocacy than deeply felt opinion. Fiennes and Smith tend to steal their scenes from other actors though Knightley holds up well in the brief scenes she shares with both actors. In later parts of the film, characters suddenly seem to change their tune for no reason other than to hurry the narrative along. The climax may be a letdown for viewers. Apart from these minor technical faults, the film is worth viewing as an example of why people may turn whistleblower and the harassment and bullying they suffer as a result. The film might have been more realistic if it had shown Bright and Emmerson also suffering harassment but then the straightforward narrative might have become unnecessarily complicated and bogged down in detail.

The film is fairly modest in line with its subject matter – ultimately what Gun did had little effect on the US decision to go to war – but its themes and the issues raised about personal integrity versus loyalty to one’s employer, be it a spy agency or a newspaper eager to court favours from the government, or loyalty to loved ones who just want to keep their heads down and avoid the spotlight, are always important and relevant no matter what the historical context is.

Seam: an action thriller SF allegory of societies under siege from government and global oppression

Elan Dassani, Rajeev Dassani, “Seam” (2017)

An excellent little film that could serve as a pilot for a television series, “Seam” posits that in the near future, after a global war between cyborgs and humans, cyborgs will be living and working separately from regular humans in the cities, towns and the countryside, and the two groups will be allowed to interact only in militarised border zones known as “seams”. Human societies by then will have become de facto panopticon police states in which activity is monitored by authorities using drones to spy on people and, if necessary, destroy them. The major aspect of this film is that there are cyborgs still living among humans, even partnering with them and having children with them; moreover, these cyborgs are suicide sleeper agents working for a secret resistance organisation which itself monitors government oppression of human beings.

The film divides into two parts, one a minor part that takes place in a Chinese city and the second major part set in a town somewhere in the Middle East. The major link between these two parts is the effect on human relationships that the rival politics between oppressive government and resistance forces exerts with devastating results. In the Chinese part, a family is left without a father (Stephen Au), and in the Middle Eastern part, Ayana (Rakeen Saad) and her soldier husband (Khaled al Ghwairi) must part forever because one of them is the sleeper agent carrying information to the resistance organisation, located in a remote desert, which the authorities, represented by the Commander (Oded Fehr) and the Controller (Ulka Simone Mohanty) are determined to thwart.

The entire cast does a great job in the breathless cat-and-mouse action thriller game that takes place, and this viewer quickly started cheering Ayana and husband Yusef on against great odds. The cinematography is so good that the desert environment becomes a major actor character in its own right as the historical mythical source of the Semitic-speaking peoples and as a continuing inspiration to them. The special effects, emphasising holograms, are well done, and the actors’ interaction with them is also spot-on natural and casual.

The film can be interpreted as an allegory of the reality in far too many parts of the world today: people angered at oppression, losing hope and ready to sacrifice future love and happiness, may give in to their fury to join extremist organisations and become suicide bombers and terrorists. Whoever controls them may draw on their history and culture to manipulate their charges and set them on destructive paths. Oppressors in their turn become more extremist in their own ideologies and behaviours and actions towards those they themselves rule and control. At the centre of the film though is the question that science fiction has posed since its origin as a distinct cultural phenomenon: what is a human and what makes someone a human?

Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

Custom Order: a thin plot and equally thin characters in a story on commodifying identity

Will Lowell, “Custom Order” (2017)

Looks like I hit a dud sci-fi short for once on the DUST channel with Will Lowell’s “Custom Order”. For a film lasting some 13 minutes, the plot is very bare-bones thin and its characters are unremarkable and stereotyped. Aaron (Matt McGorry) has just broken up with Chelsea (Maya Erskine) who, despairing of Aaron’s inability to commit himself and open up his feelings for her, has left his house in a huff with just a note on his answering machine telling him she’ll come back to get her hair-dryer and a few other items left behind. Aaron promptly orders a robot sex doll to be delivered to his place. He puts her various parts together and powers up her battery and, voila! – Nicole (Sophie Kargman) is born. Aaron promptly puts her through her paces and she passes the sex test with flying colours. The pair quickly establish a daily routine, Nicole always being available for sex and also able to keep the house in order. One day, Aaron gets a sudden visit from Chelsea, returning for the hair-dryer, who also is a bit curious as to who has been keeping the house tidy …

It is astonishing that the whole time during the film, there is very little character development in any of the characters and Nicole shows no sign of independently acquiring any self-awareness and the knowledge that she is a sex slave. Aaron comes off as a socially inept and rather grubby character. Chelsea may be or may not be having second thoughts about leaving Aaron, and the viewer is left to try to second-guess what Chelsea is going to do, at least until she discovers Aaron’s secret, at which point the film ends on a cliff-hanger.

The film might have worked much better if the same actress had played both Chelsea and Nicole, so that issues of identity and the extent to which a person can regard his/her appearance as an important part of his/her identity, a part that presumably cannot and should not be replicated, can be explored, even if superficially. This would say something about what Aaron sees in Chelsea that he continues to yearn for. Nicole for her part could have developed her own personality, one perhaps more sensitive and sympathetic to whatever needs Aaron has that he has yet to acknowledge than Chelsea has ever been. Chelsea’s reaction on seeing Nicole needs a better mix of horror, fear and upset.

Disappointingly, one doesn’t really gain much insight about how robots in future will be used to pander to their owners’ whims and how they will represent a commodification of the physical and psychological features and quirks that make a person a supposedly unique individual. What questions might arise when a person discovers his/her doppelganger being used as a sex toy and domestic slave are barely touched upon.

Colony: a stereotyped sci-fi horror treatment of colonisation and possession

Catherine Bonny, “Colony” (2018)

Partly informed by the history of early European settlement in Australia, as well as perhaps stories of the treatment of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe, this short film combines dystopian science fiction, horror, revenge with its unexpected consequences, and the relationship of colonialists with the land they settle and with that land’s original inhabitants. In particular, this film examines how the original inhabitants of the land react to the presence of the alien colonists and how they might punish those who damage and devastate their environment by infiltrating those they wish to strike.

In the distant future, a prison colony is established on a distant planet. Sardonically named “Heaven”, the prison colony is located near the seashore and its female inmates, under the watchful supervision of their male guards, are forced to farm vegetables and fruit in very harsh conditions. The food they manage to grow does not sustain them much and they progressively grow weak. In this prison live two sisters, Rhian (Emma Burnside) and Seren (Alicia Hellingman), the latter of whom was apparently smuggled by Rhian onto the spaceship that brought them to the desolate planet in defiance of the rules that stipulated that only fit people could board the craft. Rhian has an arrangement with one guard in which he provides whatever medicine he can in exchange for sex. As the days go by, and the two women try to negotiate their way through the hostility and jealousy of the other women prisoners, and the caprices of the guards, Rhian is drawn to the sea that laps the shores and breaks over the rocks of the coast: ghost voices and rattling sounds call to her and when she looks at the ocean, a strange light appears beneath the waves and beckons to her. When she gashes her leg on a rock and the wound is severe, the seawater heals the wound and when she retrieves an old brown apple that she has thrown into the water, it becomes green and new.

One day the guards trick Rhian into bringing Seren to them by telling her they have medicine but Rhian discovers the ruse too late. The two women fight the guards but Seren comes off the worse for her encounter and Rhian is unable to save her. Rhian vows vengeance for her sister’s death and the strange forces in the sea beckon her with promises to help – but as with her earlier arrangement with the guard, what this natural world wants from her is more than she reckoned with.

The film is rather uneven in its pacing: for much of its running time until the last few minutes, it is quite slow and leisurely, delineating the nature of the colony, the hierarchy that exists, and the two sisters’ uncertain place within it. Then violence happens abruptly and Rhian, stopped by the voices in her head, appears curiously apathetic. The conclusion takes place some time after Seren’s death – a day perhaps, maybe even a week, a month, a year later – and despite its casual tone, a few changed details in Rhian’s appearance tell us that the forces that Rhian aligns with are going to be horrific, and that Heaven will soon become Hell.

It is a pity that the film is slow to develop the relationships of the people in Heaven as they come across as stereotypes rather than people we would care about. Even Rhian ends up no more than a rather selfish and mercenary young woman, susceptible to manipulation in situations where the benefits might outweigh the costs. She ends up meeting more than her match in the alien environment but the alien possession and colonisation of her mind and body produce a stereotyped monster.

The film’s treatment of its themes and ideas turns out somewhat shallow and cliched. Perhaps if the pace had been a bit quicker and the plot tighter, the action might have been better spread out in the 14-minute running time, and the price Rhian pays for avenging her sister’s death could have been elaborated in more depth. The actors might have had more time and opportunity to explore their characters and given them more complexity as they confront the harsh prison conditions and pressures, and the unforgiving alien environment that will soon kill them viciously.