Nour Wazzi, “Lab Rat” (2019)
Initially the plot seems familiar to the point of banality: three scientists working for a robotics firm are suddenly trapped in the office, all entry and exit points locked by remote control, and forced to figure out by the firm’s CEO which one of them is actually an android. One of these scientists, Johnny (Matt Harris), has reason to feel irate at the CEO since she, Dr Edwards (Abeo Jackson), happens to be the mother of his girlfriend Alika (Kirsty Sturgess) with whom he’s passionately in love. Wanting desperately to go home, stuck in the dark and just having heard news about rioting in the street over the introduction of AI in offices and factories, with people fearing the loss of their jobs to robots and AI generally, the three scientists turn on one another like cats while in Dr Edwards’ office, the CEO gloats at how quickly educated and supposedly rational people turn bestial and murderous. Alika, distressed, watches the other two scientists Ellie (Sian Hill) and Marvin (Max Williams) pile on and beat Johnny and start strangling him. The daughter can bear Johnny’s treatment no more and rushes out to save him – but the mystery of which of the characters in the film is the android remains.
As it turns out, the fight between Johnny and the other two scientists is not really the test. When Johnny finds out who really is the AI cat among the human pigeons, he is absolutely gutted. Dr Edwards is full of smug satisfaction that her creation has performed as she had hoped – if the AI is to pass as a human, then the AI must exhibit the full range of human emotions, including anger and love, and be as fallible and prone to making mistakes and bad decisions as humans – and her final words are chilling as she orders more replicas of the prototype model to be made, with each model retailing for several million each. The fate of all those poor replica models is to be bought and sold like so many slaves or trafficked prostitutes.
All the actors – even those playing Ellie and Marvin, though those are minor characters – put in good performances and Jackson and Sturgess turn in excellent performances as sociopathic mother and innocent daughter respectively. Once again, a sci-fi film presents androids as being capable of more humanity than humans themselves: the twist here is that the human is the mother of the android, and in most societies who is usually tasked by custom and tradition to teach young humans how to behave and to become “human”?
Aside from addressing (in a rather superficial way) the issue of robotics making humans redundant, the film considers the possibility of giving robots not only human intelligence but also human emotions and the ability to feel empathy and compassion – with what that implies for how humans should treat robots ethically and whether robots are entitled to the same human rights, privileges and responsibilities as humans – and through this strategy, investigates the nature of what it means to be human. The result is that the most human of all the characters in the film, the most compassionate and least brutal and violent of them all, turns out to be the robot.
A strong character-driven short, “Lab Rat” shows that science fiction films need not rely on special effects at all, with all the science contained within the plot and the characters’ dialogue. Good acting is called for to make such a film successful and it is to director Wazzi’s credit that she found excellent actors to fill all the roles in this film.