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.

O Lucky Man! – a blackly comic odyssey criticising capitalist ideology and values

Lindsay Anderson, “O Lucky Man!” (1973)

A satirical allegory that exposes life in Western capitalist society and the values and beliefs needed to survive successfully in it, “O Lucky Man!” presents as an odyssey of one Michael Travis (Malcolm MacDowell) who starts the film as a novice sales representative thrown by his employer Imperial Coffee into the deep end to market and sell coffee to various retail clients in northeast England after the regular sales rep Oswald disappears. During his time as salesman, MacDowell is seduced by Mrs Ball (Mary MacLeod), a housekeeper at the hotel where he stays during his business trips around the designated sales zone; he later discovers that a number of his company clients have closed shop and retrenched their workers (so they won’t be needing any more coffee to keep the staff happy) due to the prevailing economic climate of the period (early 1970s); and he ends up imprisoned and tortured at a secret government nuclear facility that happens to be a company client. (The bureaucrats there believe he is a Communist spy.) The facility has a fire emergency that blows up the buildings and sets Travis’ car on fire but Travis manages to find his way out of the secret facility.

He winds up at a private medical facility owned by Dr Millar (Graham Crowden) who is conducting secret genetic research that generates quite alarming results. Travis manages to escape and winds up with the Alan Price Band, travelling to a gig in London with groupie Patricia Burgess (Helen Mirren) in tow. Through Patricia, with whom he falls in love, Travis gets a job with her father Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), a millionaire industrialist who sells a hideous napalm-like chemical euphemistically called “honey” to Dr Munda, the dictator president of Zingara, a brutal Third World police state that keeps its people in poverty and enslaved on plantations and factories producing products for the First World while managing at the same time to pose as a playground for wealthy First World tourists. Burgess, Dr Munda and their staff scheme to frame Travis as culpable for fraud and Travis ends up being convicted in a rigged trial and sentenced to jail for five years.

After serving his time, during which he studies philosophy and behaves as a model prisoner, Travis is released back into the community where he undergoes more trials involving contacts with the poor and the marginalised in society, culminating in a vicious attack on him by homeless people in a dump.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Alan Price and his musicians singing and performing songs that comment on Travis’ adventures and the pitfalls that await those who, like Travis, strive for material success, wealth and the admiration of their peers above all else. A subplot that starts with an “old” grainy film of Latin-American labourers harvesting coffee beans and one defiant worker (MacDowell) having his hands cut off by a foreman for a colonialist plantation owner and then demonstrates Britain’s downfall as an imperial empire to the extent that the country tries to maintain its status as a world power by engaging in indirect colonial rule through proxy dictators oppressing their own people, so that the British can continue to grab profits from exploiting former colonies’ natural resources, is threaded through Travis’ adventures: the relationship between the colonialists and the colonised may change and become more indirect and complicated, but the violence and exploitation remain much the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The exploitation and violence that Britain visits upon Third World populations with “honey” are soon turned on Travis himself; his innocence, helpfulness and ambition exploited by Burgess, he is soon sent to prison. After his five-year stint there, Travis is let loose in the streets with nowhere to go, despite his new knowledge of philosophy and the reading he has done; this is analogous to a layer of middle class people in Third World countries who absorb all they can of Western civilisation but can find no way of using it to benefit their poorer compatriots. Unfortunately the poor and the homeless are no better than the rich or the middle class in beating up on Travis and leaving him for dead; this may be director Anderson’s way of showing how capitalist ideology and values degrade all of society, not just its upper and more privileged levels.

Several actors play at least two or three different roles in the film which may highlight the apparent randomness (or not) in capitalist society in its selection of some people for fame and fortune and others for disaster. This fact is exploited for comic effect in parts where some of Travis’ fellow prisoners are played by the same actors who played the salesman’s fellow trainee sales reps near the beginning of the film. Even with actors juggling different roles, the size of the cast is still astonishing. Probably the most outstanding performances, aside from MacDowell who carries the film admirably on his shoulders, are those of Rachel Roberts in playing a corporate psychologist with a secret crush on Travis, Dr Munda’s secretary / mistress and Mrs Richards the suicidal working-class housewife; and of Ralph Richardson as James Burgess and Monty, a caretaker at a working-class hotel.

The film may be rather long in piling punishment upon punishment on Travis, particularly in his post-prison life where he is literally lost in a wilderness, unable to find a niche where he can survive without being kicked around. It does lose focus at times in a plot of black comedy skits barely hanging together but every so often Alan Price and his band appear in the nick of time to critique 1970s British society. The three-hour marathon running time passes very quickly as there is so much to absorb in each little episode – and the episodes featuring Dr Munda are not only at once droll and gruesome in their detail, they are also painfully contemporary and confronting in an age in which Western countries, in their long economic twilight of deindustrialisation, decreasing influence over other nations, and dealings with corrupt governments to safeguard their own interests, are going backwards.

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.