Zach Strauss, “Bad Peter” (2017)
At first rather amusing but then quickly becoming sinister and horrific, this nine-minute short presents smart-home artificial intelligence (AI) as an extension of the omniscient panopticon police state. Young expectant – and apparently single – mother Rachel (Frankie Shaw) is subjected to a humiliating and cruel health-and-exercise regimen by an AI database known as Peter (voiced by Ross Partridge) that presumes to know what is best for her and her unborn baby, even as the woman becomes physically and mentally exhausted by the excessive demands made by the technology. Most sinister of all, if Rachel refuses to obey, she is subjected to electric shocks from a neck brace she is forced to wear.
For its length, the plot actually drags on too long and prolongs the viewer’s distress at Rachel’s suffering. We do not know why Rachel must wear the brace or why she has to follow the database’s orders. There is nothing to suggest that she has done anything wrong in the past or that she is a surrogate mother bound to a contract. She wears clean casual clothes and lives in a lovely furnished house with tasteful Scandinavian minimalist design but we do not know how she is supported financially or if she works outside the house. She appears to be completely at the mercy of the database, obeying without question and rebelling in small ways, only to resume her obeisance, and that may be the most horrifying aspect of the film.
The message of the short seems to be that as technology is allowed to intrude more and more into our lives, we are just as ready to surrender our psychological and emotional independence to the machines and the agenda and values of those who write algorithms that power the technology, as we do our physical independence. As we give up our power and control over our lives, we become more and more like children, and we end up needing more external intrusion and control over our thoughts and actions. There is a moment in the film in which Rachel, having silenced Peter, appears to be lost in the sudden silence. Perhaps in that moment she is forced to face the awesome responsibility of having taken charge of her life.
While the film is well presented with a bright atmosphere and clean lines, and Shaw does a good job as the compliant young mother-to-be, the film gives very little context about her character and how she came to be a virtual prisoner. Perhaps this film is a proof-of-concept piece: it certainly deserves a more detailed treatment as a longer short film or a 70-minute movie.