Future Boyfriend: a sweet sci-fi romantic comedy offering a second chance of life

Ben Rock, “Future Boyfriend” (2016)

Adapted from a play written by A Vincent Ularich for a science fiction theatre festival, of which its full-length romantic comedy movie potential was quickly appreciated by the audience, “Future Boyfriend” takes place in a single setting – its two main characters sit opposite each other at a table in a cosy Italian restaurant – and is driven entirely by the characters’ dialogue. Stuart and Kayley (played by Ron Morehouse and Emily respectively who also played those characters in the play) are on their third date together, and Stuart decides to tell Kayley, since they are now going steady, about his past – or rather, his future. He has come from 60 years in the future in which he first met Kayley as an elderly woman in the nursing home where he works as a care assistant. He even demonstrates to his stunned date the proof with a hologram presentation in which images of the aged Kayley celebrating her 90th birthday with Stuart appear. Apparently Kayley has ended up in the nursing home as her career dreams have failed and she never married and had any children. The horrified young Kayley decides she’s had enough of seeing her bleak future and flees the restaurant … and a very distraught Stuart.

The film succeeds through the work and energy the actors put into their characters: Morehouse particularly emphasises the details of Stuart’s earnest devotion to Kayley, cutting up the food and even feeding the young Kayley though the dementia will not appear for another 60 years. Bell does great work playing Kayley through all the emotions the character must demonstrate in 14 minutes. Unfortunately the single setting and short duration of the film do not allow for Kayley having second and third thoughts about her relationship with Stuart, with the result that any maturation she undergoes and the decision she makes about that relationship appear unusually quick and shallow. A movie treatment of “Future Boyfriend” would draw out the character development of both Stuart and Kayley, as Stuart would have to see the young Kayley for what she is now and not as the elderly patient she will be in the future, and Kayley would have the luxury of time to consider whether or not she should continue to see a rather dorky if earnest young man with an unusual past … or future.

Some may see a rather conservative message that presumes women are much better off in a relationship than living alone, with all the presumably dire health consequences that might result. A more positive message viewers might come away with is that the future isn’t necessarily set in stone, and even though Stuart has come from a future world in which Kayley has been unlucky in love and career, there is now the possibility that with him now by her side, that future can be directed onto a different and happier path. Who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

Psychosis: character study of techno-paranoia under computer surveillance

Ben Feldman, “Psychosis” (2019)

The shorter of two films based on the short story of the same name by Matt Dymerski posted to the short horror fiction website Creepypasta, this is a darkly paranoiac minimalist work. When we first meet John (Jack Alberts), an IT programmer, he has already been living on his own in a basement room with his eyes almost permanently glued to the screens of his various IT devices, never venturing outside except perhaps to get another bottle of water from the vending machine or going on increasingly rare dates with girlfriend Amy (Alexandra Ivey). One day John receives a mysterious email message and he becomes convinced that he is being spied upon by a sinister technological entity that threatens to take over his mind. With each passing day, diligently observed by the film, John retreats further into his mind and physical space despite Amy’s best efforts to get him out of his room. John is soon convinced that Amy is a robot just like every other human being trying to contact him. Soon he is convinced that even his body parts – in particular his eyes – are being replaced by cyber-mechanical parts and he attempts to erase these, starting with his eyes.

With its emphasis on close-ups of the main actor’s face, short and fast editing, and abrupt cuts, the cinematography effectively conveys the hysteria of John’s world as it closes in on him. The dark atmosphere in John’s room, its chaotic mess and the various computer hardware of differing ages placed here and there mirror the state of John’s mind. The voice-over narration, performed by the actor himself, gives viewers an insight into John’s paranoia and heightened vigilance against the invisible forces plaguing him.

The climax when it comes is rather sudden, once John begins to doubt the nature of his reality and becomes convinced that his eyes are not only playing tricks on him but are part of his intended downfall by the alien enemy. After his self-mutilation, the next time we see him he is in an institution for the mentally ill, trussed up in a straitjacket and a padded cell and indulged by the hospital staff. A twist in the plot quickly comes soon after and at that point the film ends.

The notion of cyber-technology acquiring its own evil life-force and actively preying on individuals by sending them emails and deciding what they can and cannot see or hear is becoming increasingly and painfully relevant in a world of ever-encroaching cyber-surveillance and AI databases and bots that follow and predict human behaviour and actions, and use the information collected to influence and mould future decision-making. Through such technology, a police state acting on behalf of unseen elites can track individuals through the trails they leave in cyberspace, predict what these individuals will do next and use the information gathered to guide and control the individuals’ thinking and actions. In such a world, where impersonal and deceptively rational and orderly algorithms and rules govern humans as though they were black-box machines responding to stimuli, the only sane thing to do is … to become mad.

Bad Peter: the panopticon police state controlling an individual life to an astonishing degree

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.

Metta Via: a story of personal transformation with a strange power and attraction

Warren Flanagan, “Metta Via” (2017)

Visually stunning and ambitious in its concept, this Canadian short work is possessed of unusual power. Superficially it lacks an obvious plot and for all I know it may actually be a proof-of-concept work for a movie inspired by existential themes. In a temple-like spacecraft, a young woman, Evelyn (Stacey Armstrong), awakens as if having been birthed in an artificial womb. Around her, strange machines with flashing coloured disks that may reference the concept of chakras (focal points of energy in the human body in Tantra Buddhism or Hinduism) communicate with one another in an equally odd alien language. These machines clearly expect something of this young woman; they detach the life support systems that have sustained her and push her gasping onto the floor. Apparent memories flash in front of her and for a short while, her earliest memory – of living on a farm in picture-postcard-perfect Switzerland as a small girl, being beckoned by a white-clad figure (Armstrong again) to follow while all around spaceships bearing the symbols of the machines that have kept Evelyn alive hover in the sky – holds her spellbound. Presumably other memories come to the fore, stay a while and flash back into her unconscious mind. Evelyn seems to come to a decision and strides towards a blinding white light, her physical body falling away and the life-force that maintained it becoming pure energy. As she enters through the Blankness, the machines behind her roar approvingly and ask her if she is still present within. Evelyn affirms that she is, and moreover there are others like her within.

The plot is so vague that many meanings and interpretations can be placed upon it. The woman may be in a grey zone between incarnations and her entry into the white Blankness may be her passing into a new universe where she will take up her new body. Only her consciousness will retain anything of past lives in previous universes. Alternately Evelyn may be ascending to another level within the current universe: a level we humans cannot understand, but one where Evelyn and others who have ascended before may look back or look down on us, and perhaps try to intercede to shape a particular direction to global cultures so we humans don’t destroy the planet through our foolish and thoughtless actions. At the very least, a personal transformation is taking place, one from which a person cannot return to a previous state of existence.

The spacecraft settings are lavish yet at the same time rather alien-looking, eerie and reminiscent of ancient pagan temples where animals might be sacrificed and their various organs offered to the gods or used in a divination ritual. A debt is owed to past inspirational films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. Actor Stacey Armstrong, having no monologue or dialogue to express, conveys all the wonder, the surprise, the fear and the determination her character needs in undergoing what might be a traumatic birth or rebirth, or simply coming out of a long period of aestivation, into another state of existence. The animation and special effects are impressive, and one does get the feeling of a mighty alien space civilisation capturing human children, somehow bringing them up and maturing them into adults, and then once those adults have become conscious and aware, using that conscious force for its own ends. Do the machines that bring Evelyn awake have an altruistic agenda in doing so? Or are they planning to use Evelyn and any abilities she may have to persuade her fellow human beings to submit to their power?

Perhaps it is the film’s capacity to be all interpretations while not favouring any one in particular that gives it its power and attraction.



The Masseuse: how to be human and to have free will in an oppressive society and culture

Tan Ce Ding, “The Masseuse” (2018)

An intriguing film set in a not-too distant dystopian future in Kuala Lumpur, “The Masseuse” poses questions about the nature of free will, and what it means to be human, in an apparent police-state society where it seems that rebels against that society are just as tyrannical, brutal and unfeeling as the enemy they oppose. IT technician Loong (Koe Shern) comes to a brothel to fix an ageing robot in the form of a young woman masseuse (Candy Ice); after rectifying a few little wires in her neck, the robot masseuse seems as good as new and expresses interest in Loong. After some conversation and the beginnings of an unlikely friendship, Loong goes home to his father, who turns out to be a former secret terrorist who fought against widespread automation in society before an accident that has left him permanently disabled. The father punishes Loong severely for not getting rid of more robots and viewers get an idea of why Loong became an IT technician: so he could continue his father’s work by secretly sabotaging robots.

Despite this, Loong continues to see the robot masseuse under the pretence of checking that her circuits are working properly. She has a child-like view and joy of the world, and wants to know what dreams are and what it must be like to able to dream. Loong is drawn to the robot and takes her on outings outside the brothel (presumably the madame there allows her robot assets time off) so she can see the world for herself. Yet his loyalty to his father and what his father has sacrificed for him, and the mission he feels has been entrusted to him, cast a tense dilemma over his relationship with the robot that he must resolve sooner or later.

The acting is well done, especially by Candy Ice; Koe Shern seems more wooden and even a little robotic which perhaps is intended that way, the robot masseuse demonstrating more innocent emotion and feeling than do the shuttered, put-upon humans do in the oppressive society they live in. Kuala Lumpur seems an impersonal city, full of gates and other prisons, physical, emotional and cultural alike. His loyalty to his father, the weight of Chinese cultural tradition that demands respect for one’s elders, the legacy of his father’s fight against the authorities and the impersonal, inhuman society they have brought to Malaysia: all these imprison Loong and ironically stop him from being a full human being to the extent that the robot masseuse is able to achieve when she is with him.

Viewers can see from a long way off that a cruel twist will come, and a very devastating one it is too, in a film of longing and attempts by two lonely figures, hampered by their respective prisons, to connect with one another and become truly alive. Instead Loong becomes truly dehumanised by his actions and that perhaps is the worst twist. In its own way, this film is a perfect illustration of the human existential condition in a society where politics, the economy, culture and personal and family loyalties can threaten to make a human being less than human.

What if Wendy: a sparse and painful character study of denial and grief

James A Sims, “What if Wendy” (2017)

Here is a sparse and minimalist character study of a woman in denial about her grief at the death of a child, and how she might use futuristic technological advances to continue to hold her emotions at bay only to come up against the limitations of those technologies and how they keep her trapped physically as well as emotionally. Dr Mara Stevens (Meredith Patterson) is a case manager / counsellor for a genetics engineering firm that specialises in advising couples on how to have genetically perfect children, living a secluded life and throwing all her energy into her work. However one day certain incidents force her to admit to herself that her long-dead daughter really is no more, in spite of the various holograms she creates using some of her daughter’s preserved DNA: among them, the day happens to be the day her daughter would have turned seven-years-old; and her ex-husband contacts her unexpectedly to let her know his new partner Stephanie is pregnant. Trying to celebrate the child’s seventh birthday with one of the holograms with a small cake, the doctor finally realises, as though invisible scales have suddenly fallen from her eyes, that the hologram cannot blow out the candle.

The film gives Patterson an excellent opportunity to portray a character slowly and gradually falling into pieces, which she does very well. She manages to maintain her character’s dignity when doing so, up to the climax of the film. The character’s home surroundings – she does not leave home until very late in the film – is sparingly furnished, mirroring the emptiness in her life. Music is used quietly and sparingly until the last few minutes when it becomes dramatic, paralleling the confusion and anguish of the doctor as she races out of the house and later gives in to her grief. At the point when she breaks down, all sound is removed from the film and this helps to focus viewer attention on the character’s face and make her raw emotion all the more painful to watch.

The film gives no indication that Dr Stevens will seek any help or counselling to guide her through her trauma. One can imagine the doctor slowly pulling herself back together, recovering that stoic, unemotional composure, and carrying on with life as if nothing had happened … until the daughter’s eighth birthday comes along. Perhaps this is the horror behind this short film: that it is all as self-contained as Dr Stevens’ life is. Not even the news that her ex-husband and his partner will soon start a family afresh and be able to come to terms with the memory of a dead child can move her. Dr Stevens’ use of hologram and genetics technologies is sure to keep her stuck in a self-made hell instead of allowing her to grieve and then perhaps to pick up the pieces of her life and forge a new direction.

Iteration 1: a dystopian human future equivalent to a maze teaching flatworms to learn from experience

Jesse Lupini, “Iteration 1” (2016)

Made for a Canadian film festival in which the objective was to shoot a film and complete its post-production in the space of 8 days, “Iteration 1” is a very good-looking work that perhaps mirrors how AI bots learn or how flatworms are trained to find their way through a maze. In a dystopian future where she might be a prisoner, Anna (Katherine Isabelle) gets up out of bed and has 60 seconds to find her way out of her minimalist-styled prison or get zapped dead if she makes a mistake or time runs out. The next time she is born, she has to go through the whole process of escaping her prison within 60 seconds again. Viewers can see where this is going so there is no point of trying to count the number of times Anna becomes aware and being zapped before she is eventually able to escape her bedroom prison, only to enter another prison where she is surrounded by balloons of which she must break one to find a key that will allow her to escape the second prison … into a third prison where there is a huge tree and a small axe. Each time she wakes up, her attitude changes (indicating that she is learning from past experiences) and previous incarnations assist her so perhaps yes, Anna is indeed some kind of AI bot. In every incarnation, Anna is warned by an unseen supervisor (France Perras) speaking to her through some sort of PA system whenever she makes a mistake.

Viewers may think there is no plot or story, and certainly there appears to be no ending, but the plot itself is a series of endless repetitions which might symbolise the journey of life for individual humans or humanity as a collective … the purpose of humankind, individually and collectively, is to achieve and overcome obstacles, and learn from such experiences, to advance the species and enable its survival. What the end goal from such a series of quests is, remains elusive.

For a film quickly put together, the sets are very good, the acting is impressive without being excessive and the special effects are also spot-on and well done.

The Candidate: a suspenseful film of a sociopath caught in a spider’s web of control

David Karlak, “The Candidate” (2010)

Entirely driven by character and dialogue, this interesting character study of a corporate middle manager, ambitious and not a little sociopathic to boot, who falls victim to his own greed and ruthlessness – with not a little help perhaps from a cosmic joker – is tight and suspenseful. Burton Grunzer (Tom Gulager), a middle-level marketing executive in a large and rather faceless corporation, chafes at being partnered with fellow exec Whitman Hayes (Thomas Duffy) who wastes time while giving marketing presentations but is nevertheless valued by his senior managers because he has the human touch. The Big Boss (Vyto Ruginis) offers friendly advice to Grunzer that he ought to be thankful for having Hayes on his side but Grunzer is incapable of the insight necessary to accept such advice.

Lately Grunzer has been pestered by emails and letters from a Carl Tucker of the secretive Society of United Action and one day he decides to accept a visit from Tucker (Robert Picardo) when his secretary (Meghan Markle) opens a handwritten and delivered letter from that fellow. From then on the film becomes a showcase of Picardo’s acting and the suspense the actor draws from his monologue as Tucker explains to a bemused Grunzer the origins of the Society of United Action and its goals. The SoUA is devoted to killing off various targeted people by an apparently legal if underhanded method – it is a version of what indigenous Australian people known as the Arrernte call “bone-pointing” in which a person is willed to die – and Tucker wants to know if Grunzer is interested in this method. By this point in the film, the viewer is well aware that Grunzer dislikes Hayes and would not stop at getting rid of his marketing partner permanently if he can avoid the legal consequences.

The film’s premise might appear hokey to some – how does the SoUA come to know about Grunzer’s character and personality? – but it turns out to be very plausible thanks to incredible acting from both Gulager and Picardo respectively building up their characters as the repellent Grunzer and the affable Tucker. By the time Picardo appears on the scene, the viewer already knows what a nasty piece of work Grunzer is. Picardo playing a fast-talking sales representative with a homely, friendly manner effectively conceals the sinister agenda he offers to Grunzer. Grunzer’s own ambition and character flaws make him an ideal fellow to fall into the secretive organisation’s clutches, and this scenario in itself might say something about how the mysterious workings of the universe find opportunity to ensnare people through their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

The bland surroundings of the corporate office environment might be enough to send any latent sociopath completely off the edge so much kudos is in order for those in the production crew who found the place or created it. The film’s pacing – and Picardo’s own pacing – build up the suspense very effectively. Its structuring into two halves, the first half setting up the character of Grunzer and forming the framework for the second half, is very tight, so tight that it is almost rushed.

The film could almost serve as a parable, the motto of which might be “Be careful what you wish for”, so universal is its message of wanting control and accepting the help that unexpectedly comes a person’s way – and which turns out to be a veritable spider’s web of control in itself.

On / Off: a film on identity, memory and the consequences of inattention

Thierry Lorenzi, “On / Off” (2013)

This short space-exploration thriller film had been doing the film festival circuit for a number of years before DUST channel featured it in 2019. The story seems straightforward until the unexpected twist comes which explains quite a few puzzling aspects earlier in the film. Out on a lonely spacecraft in the near future, astronaut Meredith (Carole Brana) has a panic attack before she is supposed to set out on a space walk? The panic attack is severe and she just manages to inject herself with some clear-liquid horse tranquilliser; she then sets off on the space walk despite having a headache and the concern of her colleague and supervisor Cid (Arben Barjraktaraj) for her well-being. Quite what the space walk is for is never made clear. While Meredith floats about and goes off into a dreamy reverie, Cid goes off on a trance all his own in zero-gravity conditions while he’s supposed to be monitoring Meredith’s walk and making sure her lifelines are not disconnected. (One wonders where everyone else on the spacecraft has gone.) Inevitably Meredith meets with trouble, her lines are cut and she quickly drifts away from the ship.

Just when you think Meredith is lost forever, she wakes up to a stern lecture by Cid who has to explain (once again, I imagine) that she isn’t what she believes herself to be and that everything and everyone she knew has passed on. It seems that Meredith is fixated on the last things and memories she had just before some catastrophe, far beyond the scope of the film to explain (so it leaves out the disaster altogether), hit her, after which she had to be reconstructed completely – as a robot.

While the film may not look or play consistently or according to what most people would expect of human activity on a spacecraft – there should be more than two people on the ship for security reasons, people don’t go on space-walks by themselves without being monitored properly by the crew inside – it does put forward some intriguing views regarding the nature of identity and how memories and repeated behaviours define an individual. The way in which the real Meredith’s memories and behaviours have been collected along with her knowledge and experience and transplanted onto a database that is then placed into a robot which can then be exploited by the corporation or government that had previously employed the human Meredith may say something about how Western society regards people as commodities to be exploited. The horror that the climactic twist in the plot throws at viewers is in stark contrast with the serene and almost poetic images of Meredith during her space-walk. Viewers are left with an almost unspeakably cruel and horrific impression of what must have happened to the real Meredith that the robot Meredith is doomed to relive over and over.

Aeranger: a meditation on how duty, self-sacrifice and love of one’s people have far-reaching consequences

Anthony Ferraro, “Aeranger” (2019)

A twelve-minute film about an alien crash-landing somewhere in North America thousands of years ago when mammoths were still roaming the continent and humans had just entered it becomes, in director Anthony Ferraro’s hands, a meditation on self-sacrifice, duty and how one’s role in the scheme of things, no matter how small it might seem, has the potential to change history and even direct the course of future civilisations many aeons later. Alien visitor Kallelle (Bobbie Breckenridge) emerges out of her wrecked spacecraft and grabs a small metal container. Critically injured, she manages to make her way through the landscape – it’s a forest beside a small shallow valley – and finds a spot to plant a seedling. After sending a hostile earthling (Nic Kretz) on his way, she makes contact with an alien (Damo Sultan) back home and he asks her how her mission is proceeding. We learn from their terse conversation that their home planet is dying from an unimaginable catastrophe and many Aerangers like Kallelle have travelled far and wide through the cosmos trying to find new planets where her people can settle with no luck. Kallelle seems to have found the right place. Her contact piece seems to be on the verge of giving out so the alien back home tries to reassure Kallelle that her seedling will grow into the filtration system that their people will need thousands of their alien years into the future when eventually they can come out of hibernation and travel to Earth to settle. With this comfort, believing that her actions will benefit her people, the dying Kallelle completes her mission.

The film ends with a very surprising twist and posits the notion that should Kallelle’s people arrive on Earth, they will find that, like them, we are also on the verge of global environmental catastrophe due in no small part to our activities and our failure to act as responsible stewards of our planet’s resources. Whether they decide to wipe us out or deign to share their knowledge and solutions to the environmental crisis is a story for another film but Kallelle’s encounter with the human suggests that her people might regard us as savages who do not deserve to be saved.

The film would not have worked without Breckenridge’s acting: she portrays Kallelle with astonishing insight in an otherwise sketchy character who is at once vulnerable, hesitant and in great pain, yet determined and focused when the need arises. In her final moments, she looks at a picture of a loved one on her hologram gadget with tears in her eyes. The forest environment itself is a significant character, Eden-like in its immersive and serene quality, with a herd of mammoths travelling through the hills in the distance, yet not without its dangers hiding behind its curtains of trees.

With its themes of duty, self-sacrifice and love for one’s family and people, and how such qualities can have consequences extending far into the future, the film has the appearance of a parable.