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.

They Watch: a dystopian sci-fi film of the oppressed being used to oppress others

Andre LeBlanc, “They Watch” (2016)

In the near future, a mother and her teenage son living in small-town America are under siege from an oppressive police-state bureaucracy using an ingenious surveillance system that exploits prison labour as disembodied spies and snitches. The teenage son has been secretly working to expose the corruption of the system by helping to edit and distribute copies of a samizdat-style newspaper called The Truth; this act of defiance has brought him and his mother to the attention of the authorities who use the astral bodies of prisoners to invisibly infiltrate the homes of people suspected of dissident activity and to passively report back to their controllers via technology that sees what the prisoners see and broadcast it back to the controllers. One of the two prisoners sent to spy on the boy and his mum turns out to have a connection with the boy, and this poses a moral dilemma for the prisoner. Whatever decision he takes will lead either to his own death or to the capture and certain torture and imprisonment of the teenage boy and his mother, with death in custody or capital punishment a very likely fate for either or both of them.

The film does have a slick Hollywood-style about it: it runs smoothly with quite good credible special effects; but at the same time, it does have sloppy presentation and editing. The logic of the narrative does have holes: it seems unbelievable that a hi-tech surveillance system would make such a blunder as to assign the astral body of a prisoner who once taught the teenage boy debating in high school to spying on the boy. (Though of course the databases we have that collect vast amounts of information about people for future blackmailing purposes would not be 100% infallible and there is the possibility that such databases would assign stalkers to observe people they know and care for.) Setting alight a pile of papers in a closed room seems to be asking for trouble; viewers might find themselves rooting for the secret police to bust down the doors before the kid and his mum suffocate from lack of oxygen.

The plot idea is of the sort that the 1990s television series “The X Files” might well turn its nose up at: it’s a hokey mishmash of hard science fiction and ghost thriller fantasy. The idea that has been done to death in some form or another: the state co-opting prisoners into snitching on other, perhaps innocent people for very little reward. Surely the use of astral bodies to do things that ordinary people and even AI technology can’t do seems far-fetched, especially if the astral bodies turn out to have minds of their own. Nevertheless the idea of an oppressive system using those it oppresses as slaves to enforce extreme conformity and cut off dissidence is one that will continue to disturb audiences long after they have seen this film.

Orbit: adaptation of famous Edgar Allan Poe story enquires into the fragility of identity

Nicholas Camp, Don Thiel III, “Orbit” (2019)

A clever re-telling of the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, this short film explores the impact of extreme physical isolation on an individual’s psychology. The narrator / protagonist (Chris Cleveland) is an astronaut working with a much older and more experienced colleague (Jacob Witkin, in his last role before he died not long afterwards) in a spacecraft orbiting a giant exoplanet in the far reaches of space. The old fellow’s coloured glass eye infuriates the younger man for some reason and the latter plots the man’s death. Sure enough, after despatching the old fellow, the astronaut hides his body under the floor panels but the spacecraft registers the death and sends a signal out to space-station HQ. Two officers (Jasmine Kaur and David Competello) promptly fly out to the craft and interrogate the astronaut. During interrogation, the astronaut is irritated by a growing ringing in his ears, which he is convinced is the heartbeat of his victim, and though the officers seem satisfied with his explanation regarding the old man’s death, the astronaut ends up confessing to his crime and shows the horrified officers where he has buried the corpse.

Set in the style of low-budget science fiction films of the 1970s – 1990s – the various incarnations of the “Star Trek” television series and spin-off movies come to mind – the short does a capable job in portraying the obsessive monomania and growing psychosis in the astronaut (though he is always in danger of falling into a stock villainous character type and the actor would have been well advised to be rid of his beard). Quick editing and interspersing the scenes of the interrogation with shots of the murder, other violence and some small amounts of gore stoke and increase the tension. The music soundtrack is of Wagnerian orchestral excess applied in discreet and tasteful amounts to amplify the drama at crucial points in the plot while maintaining the classic Hollywood style of space-opera science fiction films.

The film’s conclusion suggests a rather different fate for the narrator than most adaptations of the Poe story have previously done and posits the paradoxical notion that physical isolation, rather than increasing or accentuating a person’s individuality and identity (to his/her fellows), instead breaks it down. (Something the CIA has known for half a century at least, from experience in torturing people by depriving them of all sensory stimulation in its notorious MK-ULTRA experiments.) The glass eye is given much greater importance in this adaptation of the Poe story than in the original story itself; it truly becomes a mirror of the blankness of the soul behind it.

Clean Cut: short whimsical sci-fi black comedy of an unlikely serial killer in the making

Andrew Hunt, “Clean Cut” (2015)

From DUST, an online channel specialising in screening science fiction films made by up-and-coming film-makers comes this very amusing and cheeky horror comedy short starring an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner. Roomba keeps the floors of its owner’s house spotlessly clean and the film also hints that the robot does double duty as a security guard. One night a burglar (Scott Jorgenson) breaks into the house but suffers a heart attack and spills his life-saving tablets all over the floor. Lying helplessly supine on the floor, he implores Roomba to save him by passing the tablets over but Roomba hoovers them up and the burglar dies. In a remarkable and breathtaking bird’s-eye point-of-view shot with the wooden floor as backdrop, Roomba zooms up and down: each time it zooms up the floor, it is carrying plastic bags, tape and an already bloodied electric saw. We hear noises of cutting from off-screen, then Roomba zooms down dragging the bag full of wrapped body parts!

From this moment on, though there is not much left of the film, we get subtle hints of Roomba’s growing self-awareness (the machine pauses to gaze at its bloodied reflection in a mirror) and the beginnings of an emotional life (it angrily flashes red when its owner verbally abuses it after all the work it has done for him). Viewers are left in no doubt that a new if rather gruesome vocation beckons for Roomba and the owner had better watch his own back.

While the plot is laughable and wouldn’t bear more than a five-minute short before it thins out, the film maintains audience interest by filming at the Roomba’s level and emphasising a minimalist approach to its story and characters with lots of close-up shots. The whimsical music adds to the general improbable theme of an ordinary, even banal household gadget, cute to look at and for toddlers to ride, having a secret life as a serial killer capable of emotions and having the motivation to choose its victims and plot its next murders. Even the smallest, most harmless-looking object, provided it has sufficient intelligence, can become a killing machine monster.

Perfectly Natural: science fiction horror film about demonic possession of the for-profit corporate kind

Victor Alonso-Berbel, “Perfectly Natural” (2018)

No aliens, monsters, paranormal events or denizens of Hell or the 25th dimension abound here but this 12-minute short is as horrifying in its own apparently innocent, everyday-life-looking way as films about people being possessed by demons. In “Perfectly Natural”, the demon of possession exists in virtual technology, summoned by the corporate owners who employ Wanda as one of their company’s many IT workers. Wanda is encouraged to use the company’s babysitting service by her boss: the fees for the babysitting service come out of her pay packet and the service, using holograms and AI, supposedly streams knowledge, cognitive awareness and skills like knowing a second language into baby Max’s mind through a microchip attached to the side of his brow. Wanda discovers this service comes with many strings attached: it continually prompts her with emails sent to her computer to enroll Max into yet more programs that will stimulate his mind and intelligence, yet if she clicks on a tab in the emails to enroll him, she is hit with demands to cough up money. Gradually the realisation dawns on Wanda and her partner Zach that their baby has been captured by the corporation which has substituted virtual versions of Wanda and Zach not only to entertain and guide Max through the various cyber-territories he must navigate but to replace the real flesh-and-blood Wanda and Zach altogether. The child has become a real-life Snow White, dead to the world, while his parents face social censure and Wanda getting the sack if they withdraw Max from the company program.

The film proceeds in a straightforward way at a steady pace through the plot, the cast of three actors playing Wanda, her boss and Zach capably in the short time they have, which makes the film’s climax (when Wanda and Zach discover they have lost Max to the corporation) all the more despairing. They can rescue him physically but the program warns them he might suffer neurological damage if they pull him out too early – well, of course the program would say that, playing on the fear and guilt the parents will suffer if at some later time Max ends up being behind the other kids at school work.

The presentation is excellent with great cinematography and editing. The plot is a bit rough around the edges: the nature of Wanda’s work is not too clear and we have no idea how she came to be employed by the corporation. Why Wanda’s boss manages to raise her own children without subjecting them to the babysitting service is not explained: one would have thought such a service would be compulsory for all employees. Because the film has been made as a short, there is no explanation for the corporate agenda behind the babysitting service – a full-length film would be needed to show and tell, as well as detail how Wanda and Zach discover what their roles in the corporation are, what the corporation has in mind in using Max as a guinea pig, and how the parents manage (or not) to wrest Max and his mind away from permanent enslavement.