Men in Black II: some good ideas go to waste in a cheap sequel

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black II” (2002)

Five years after the events of the original “Men in Black”, at the end of which Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) retired from the Men in Black agency – the secret intelligence unit that monitors the activities of exterrestrial beings living and working on Planet Earth – his former MiB protege Agent J (Will Smith) is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of an alien at his pizza restaurant. There, Agent J interviews Laura (Rosario Dawson) who tells him her employer was killed by two aliens, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a shape-shifting monster in the form of a lingerie model, and Charlie and Scrad, Serleena’s two-headed assistant (Johnny Knoxville), who are hunting for the Light of Zartha which Serleena needs for her own nefarious purposes. Agent J is attracted to Laura and decides not to neuralyse her.

As he investigates the crime, Agent J discovers nearly all leads go back to his mentor so he brings the former Agent K back to MiB headquarters for re-neuralysation. Before Agent K’s neuralysation is completed, Serleena and her minions attack the building and seriously trash it so Agent K’s memories must be restored clandestinely. Having regained his identity and memories, Agent K remembers that he partially neuralysed himself to erase what he knows of the Light of Zartha but left some clues to follow in case he needed to find out again.

Putting Laura under protection with various aliens, Agents J and K recover a video containing a fictional dramatisation of how, long ago, Queen Lauranna of Zartha entrusted the MiB agency to guard the Light from her enemy Serleena. Agent K could not save the Queen from Serleena who killed her so he neuralysed himself in order to forget his grief and at the same time forget what the Light of Zartha was and where it was held. The agents return to the place where they placed Laura but discover she has been abducted by Serleena.

While Smith and Jones work very well together – indeed, the movie limps along until Agent K recovers his memories – and do what they can to maintain the old zing and energy from the previous film, the plot is flat and the entire film has a cheap and cheesy tone. Gags such as the talking-dog gag quickly wear thin and even scenes featuring Jeff the giant monster living in the NYC subway are not very scary. While Laura plays a significant part in the film, the romance angle between her and Agent J is very brief and superficial, and the heartbreak climax in which Laura discovers her true heritage and must go to Zartha does not give the film the emotional edge it could have had.

The message that once someone becomes an MiB agent, s/he is always an MiB agent, and the corollary that MiB agents can never be normal people with normal lives and normal relationships, is present but unfortunately the script does not make more of it than it does. Much the same could be said for characters like Laura, Serleena and Charlie and Scrad: what are their motivations, why is Serleena interested in the Light of Zartha, and what do Charlie and Scrad hope to get out of working with Serleena? There are many interesting ideas in this film that could have made it much more entertaining, a little bit on the scary side, and perhaps even a bit thoughtful.

Men in Black: a sci-fi comedy sending up intel agencies and immigration issues

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black” (1997)

Very loosely based on the original comic series of the same name, in which a secret organisation called The Men In Black polices the activities of extraterrestrial aliens on Earth and keeps these hidden from the rest of humanity, this film turns the original source material into parody and satire poking fun at bureaucracy and secret intelligence agencies, and posits the notion that even underground organisations investigating conspiracy-theory / tinfoil-hat topics need new blood, new ideas and a fresh way of thinking to survive. MIB Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) needs a new partner after his old one retires when a mission proves too sticky for them both. Coincidentally a new potential replacement presents himself when New York City police officer James Edwards (Will Smith) pursues a suspect into a museum. Impressed with the cop, Agent K interviews him and encourages him to apply for a vacancy with the MIB agency. After undergoing various tests, in which he supplies original and wacky solutions, Edwards is accepted into the agency, his old identity and former civilian life are expunged from New York City records, and he becomes Agent J.

While all this is happening, an alien searching for an energy device called the Galaxy, cunningly hidden in a cat’s collar jewel, kills a farmer called Edgar (Vincent d’Onofrio) and takes on Edgar’s form, though it is very ill-fitting. The Edgar alien kills two other aliens disguised as humans and their murders are reported in The National Enquirer (a newspaper specialising in conspiracy theories and UFO sightings). Agents K and J read about the murders and Agent K guesses the Edgar alien is a “bug” (ie cockroach alien). The two agents consult an alien informant disguised as a pug dog and follow other information to find the Edgar alien having kidnapped a morgue coroner (Linda Fiorentino) and in possession of the Galaxy.

The plot is simple and straightforward to follow, though once Edwards becomes J, it no longer becomes interesting and the eccentric zany quality fades out. What the narrative ends up becoming is a standard crime caper with two agents who are mirror opposites in almost every way – Agent K is very much an organisation man while Agent J retains his individuality and quick-thinking, quick-talking flair even after his fingerprints have been burnt off and his old name has been forgotten. Jones and Smith work well together as a comedy team, and their chemistry together and mix of deadpan humour and wit hold the film together. D’Onofrio, Fiorentino and Rip Torn also hold their own well though Fiorentino is underused.

The central theme of the film could be summed up as “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, to use that old cliched proverb, as plenty in the film, including characters, plot twists and various other elements, have the element of surprise. Humans living unremarkable lives turn out to be aliens in disguise, an old car suddenly displays advanced technology, and a tiny gun packs an almighty punch and a huge recoil. The concept of individuality is examined, even if in a simplistic way: a man may lose his name and past but is his individuality, his sense of self, erased as well? Or will it be just a matter of time before Agent J becomes as much an MIB organisation man as Agent K? Will the real conflict be between Agent J in trying to maintain his individual style and way of thinking, and perhaps change the organisation, on the one hand and on the other the MIB agency itself in moulding Agent J into yet another faceless MIB agent and staying the same, at the risk of becoming stale and bureaucratic?

The film also has something pithy to say about the perennial issue faced by Western countries regarding immigration and how law and order institutions deal with illegal migrants. The lesson to be learned is that most migrants, even illegal ones, desire to lead normal lives and keep their heads down.

Contagion: a pessimistic and unforgiving study of human society in crisis

Steven Soderbergh, “Contagion” (2011)

Unexpectedly discovering a new lease of life and relevance in the current COVID-19 near-global shutdown environment, this film purports to be a procedural thriller about how health professionals, government officials and ordinary people react to and cope with an outbreak of a mystery viral disease that quickly becomes a pandemic. The film takes the form of several narratives, each centred around a particular character or set of characters, running in parallel and sometimes intersecting, but basically in agreement with respect to the film’s themes. Flashbacks are used and often the film jumps forwards in time to portray the process of social breakdown or individual characters’ development as they try to cope with uncertainty, isolation and ongoing stress.

Returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and Macau, and meeting with a former lover on her way back home to Minneapolis, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with seizures and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to hospital. Her death and its mysterious cause puzzle the doctors. Mitch returns home to find that his stepson is also dead. He is put into isolation but is found to be immune to whatever killed his wife and stepson. He later returns home to his teenage daughter Jory and together they sit through self-quarantine and isolation, and observe their neighbourhood breaking down around them as the pandemic takes hold and people either rush the stores or queue for necessities or resort to arson and other forms of violence to get the things they need.

While the Emhoffs huddle together, in Atlanta, representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security meet with Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and express misgivings that the emerging disease in Minneapolis is a bioweapon. Cheever despatches an officer, Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to investigate the situation there and she traces the outbreak to Beth Emhoff. Mears’ recommendations to local public health authorities to set up a field hospital and track and quarantine sick people fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately Mears herself falls sick and dies. In the meantime, a researcher at the CDC headquarters, Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), makes some breakthroughs in analysing the virus’ genome and finds it to be a combination of bat and pig-borne viruses. A professor in California ignores Cheever’s orders to destroy his own samples and identifies a cell culture that Hextall is able to use to create a vaccine.

Conspiracy theorist blogger Alex Krumwiede (Jude Law) posts videos on his blog about the mystery virus and boasts that he has cured himself of the illness with a homoeopathic remedy. Soon people in the US start raiding pharmacies and supermarkets for that remedy. In a TV interview, Krumwiede says that Cheever secretly advised his family and friends to flee Atlanta during the lockdown and this leads to a government investigation of Cheever’s actions.

While all this is happeing, World Health Organisation epidemiologist Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) and other public health officials working in Hong Kong work through CCTV evidence of Beth Emhoff’s activities in that territory and in Macau, during which she visited a casino, and identify her as Patient X. One HK official, Sun Feng (Chin Han) kidnaps Orantes and takes her to his village as a hostage in an effort to get hold of the vaccine when it becomes available. Orantes is released months later when the vaccine doses are eventually delivered to the village by WHO officials, but on being told that these doses are placebos, she returns to the village to warn everyone.

The film flits from one narrative to another without going into any of them in much depth. Characters are little more than stereotypes and audiences may not feel much empathy for them. There is little for Mitch and Jory to do in isolation other than get on each other’s nerves and Jory turns out to be little more than a superficial and stereotyped portrayal of a supposedly typical American teenage girl whose main goal in life seems to be contacting her boyfriend by whatever means she can, even at the cost of endangering her health and life. The most interesting narrative – Dr Orantes being taken hostage and driven to a rural village – is treated the worst: after her kidnapping, the doctor all but disappears from the film and only very late in “Contagion” is she revealed to have accepted a new role as a schoolteacher. Audiences would have found her transformation much more interesting to watch than any of the other narratives. What would have been her motive and how did she come to be accepted by Sun Feng’s people to be trusted to teach children?

Through the use of interlinked narratives, “Contagion” explores the nature of human social interactions and how these are influenced by different environments and external factors that affect them. When order is threatened or breaks down, and people grasp for information and news, scammers like Krumwiede take advantage of the helplessness to advance their own agendas and profit financially. Even researchers and public health officials bend or violate the rules when self-interest is involved: the vaccine is produced despite the fact that at least two people broke protocols in its research and development. Public health officials hesitate to institute lockdown procedures in Minneapolis just before a major public holiday and this allows the virus to escape and turn into a true pandemic. Political cronyism is at work as well: Mears dies because the plane that was supposed to evacuate her and take her to hospital is diverted instead to rescue a politician. Weirdly, vaccines are allocated to people on a lottery basis and one suspects (from the Orantes narrative) that the allocations have been done in such a way that people with power, money and influence get their vaccinations first.

While presenting as a study of human society under pandemic crisis conditions and the uncertainty and instability these generate, the film turns out to be not so different from most other Hollywood films of various genres in portraying humans as essentially selfish, greedy, manipulative, untrustworthy and unreliable in a crisis. The reality during the current COVID-19 global crisis is that so far in most countries, people have become more community-minded, more caring and more mindful of weak and vulnerable people. Contrary to the mostly negative portrayal of social media in “Contagion”, social media in COVID-19 conditions have become a major source of information and community networking for many people. It seems far more likely that the kind of bestial and violent behaviour present in “Contagion” is more a consequence of the dysfunctional neo-liberal capitalist society that exists across the US, with the widespread acceptance of values that privilege exploitation, cheating, ignorance and the use of violence over negotiation and compromise to get what one needs. Above all, the reality is that the US response to the current COVID-19 pandemic has been criminally haphazard, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, among which the poor and particular groups like Hispanic and Afro-Americans are over-represented; and instead of a lone rogue blogger trying to profit from the suffering, the US government at Federal and State levels, and other Western governments, are seeking to profit from the suffering by threatening to sue China for an amount of US$1.2 trillion (coincidentally the same amount that the US owes China in US Treasury bonds) for its supposed failure to notify the WHO of the disease and its pandemic potential.

The film’s conclusion demonstrating the evolution of the virus from a pathogen infesting bats into one infesting pigs and human beings is so clumsily and sketchily done that any message about human encroachment on and destruction of natural environments and the role that industrial farming plays in transmitting exotic viruses and diseases to humans is lost in a narrative that appears highly racist. “Contagion” might appear to be relevant to our current world but turns out to be little more than pro-US propaganda.

A tale of alienation, dehumanisation and exploitation in “Upload:U”

Samuel E Mac, “Upload:U” (2017)

A creepy little short made in very sparing minimalist style, “Upload:U” may be viewed as a metaphor expressing the alienation and dehumanisation of people living isolated existences highly dependent on cyber-technology for social interactions. Disillusioned by her cubicle job at work, unable to connect with a male employee she fancies and cut off from her family, Jane (Lee Marshall) increasingly relies on her recreational virtual reality console, connected to the AI system in her flat, for entertainment and solace. One night, her avatar takes her to a bar where she meets a man – or a few men – and has sex with him (or them). She wakes up in the morning in pain, wounded and bloodied between her legs. A strange light glows white and red within her abdomen.

Reminiscent of the cult sci-fi horror film “Demon Seed” in which a scientist’s wife is held prisoner, raped and impregnated by a computer, this short can be distressing to watch as Jane, trying to get help through her AI which deliberately misunderstands her instructions, weakens and finally dies. At no time at all does Jane appear to realise that the AI has fooled and manipulated her, and in my view this is the film’s downfall. At the very least Jane could have asked or argued with the AI what it had done to her and why. At the very least Jane could have attempted to regain control over her life, perhaps even tried to damage the AI, and this would have given viewers a better indication of her character. As it is, Jane comes across as superficial, passive and undeserving of audience sympathy. The conclusion is predictable but is cut off very quickly so viewers get no idea of the AI’s reaction to the birth of the offspring.

While the film’s visual style is light, clear and minimalist, obscuring the horror of its plot, and its cinematography is very good and uses a cheap budget well through the use of unusual angles and points of view, the film overall is let down by a poor story and sketchy characterisation. To get something out of this film, viewers need to bring their own knowledge of human alienation gained from experience or philosophical study. Young viewers without such knowledge, at whom the film targets, are likely to find this film confusing. Viewing “Upload:U” as a metaphor for human alienation, as a first step towards dehumanising people and exploiting them as machines, may be helpful in understanding the film and its flaws.

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.

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.

A Date in 2025: sci-fi romantic comedy short on human-technology interactions

Ryan Turner, “A Date in 2025” (2017)

Goofy teenage romantic comedy about a socially awkward and self-conscious young man meets insidious panopticon nanny-state, courtesy of artificial intelligence systems capable of setting up dates between people, in this artfully made short film. Daniel (Sasha Feldman) pines for a girl, Amber (Corrin Evans), whom he has met on a VR dating site so his personal AI system (voiced by Amy Shiels) persuades him to go on a date with her or the probability that he will become depressed enough to commit suicide will increase hugely. This is a tall order for someone who hasn’t ventured outside his apartment for 42 days so the AI system sets about whipping Daniel into shape by training him what to say to Amber and how to say it, getting him to exercise and go on a diet, and choosing his clothes for him when the time comes to meet Amber. Finally the two meet and in spite of all that the AI system has trained Daniel to say, he suddenly finds his human feelings after all and gives Amber a huge hug. As the two humans walk off into the sunset together, the twist comes when Amber’s AI system makes a wry statement to Daniel’s AI system!

In this very minimal plot, Turner manages to tap into some very deep human fears about alienation and how humans have allowed technology to shape and direct their lives to the extent that the technology can now determine whether to keep some humans apart from others or to bring certain individuals together and when. Perhaps the personalised AI systems feel as much isolated from one another as the humans they supposedly serve do; if that is so, then the technology has come to mirror and imitate the human existential state. On another level, one sees how AI technology can virtually imprison humans and determine when they can meet one another once the humans have achieved certain conditions required of them and the AI systems deem them sufficiently obedient enough that they can be let off the leash once in a while. The day must not be far off when AI systems can run societies and the very notion of humans having free will to determine and shape their individual and collective lives as opposed to being shaped by their circumstances and the agents in their lives comes to be regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant.

The production design plays a significant role in the film as nearly all the action takes place in one room. The attractive colours (mainly shades of grey and blue), shapes and lines of the room, the detail of the sophisticated tech gadgets and holograms, and the conversations Daniel has with his AI system all obscure the fact that he is living in a prison. Significantly Daniel’s AI system is in the form of a pyramid cone with an eye in the middle, in a wry reference to conspiracy theories revolving around the notion of a secret cabal of humans called the Illuminati who control entire nations through governments and the global finance industry. On top of this, the actors including the voice actor do an excellent job in fleshing out a deceptively simple plot with one-note characters.

Turner may have intended this short film to interrogate human – technology interactions and the social isolation and collective fragmentation these may create but there is much more in this film than what meets even his eye.

After Her: missing-girl parody that leads to a personal transformation

Aly Migliori, “After Her” (2018)

A young man, Callum (Christopher Dylan White), goes in search of a young woman, Hayley (Natalia Dyer), five years after she has disappeared from their small rural community located next to a mysterious forest. It seems that Hayley, bored by the lack of mental stimulation, initially has run off into the woods. As Callum retraces the steps they both took the last time they met five years ago, he finds the mystery black spiny object, shaped a bit like a hand grenade, that Hayley had long ago found and kept, and is transported to an underground cave system in which he apparently experiences the most incredible hallucinations and visions. Callum’s life is much changed after his underground cave explorations and he can never view his ordinary life as a city college student the way he used to again.

Set in lush forest full of shadows and the darkest of dark green tones, in caves and dark tunnels with water running through them, the film has a distinctive look suggestive of layers upon layers of plant growth hiding a terrible secret, of decay and of a strange and monstrous sexuality lying under and close to the surface of the soil. Migliori cites H P Lovecraft’s fiction as an inspiration and the influence shows in a number of scenes featuring running water and strange clouds and shadows rising from it. The cinematography can be very good and film editing that helps to build a rising sense of alarm, even panic, is well done. The actors play their parts as well as they can though they sometimes give the impression of being a bit awkward and not a little confused at what they are supposed to be doing.

The plot is easy to follow but the film’s message and what Hayley is meant to represent are not too clear. It is obvious that Hayley has become something other than the human she used to be what. Has she become a monster or is she aligned with some powerful and ambivalent force in the earth? Are her intentions or those of the beings she represents beneficent to Callum and his people? Why should Callum be so special to her? These questions arise during the course of the 13-minute short but remain unanswered. It could be that the plot can be interpreted on a number of different levels but the plot is so vague and the characters so underdeveloped – no wonder Dyer and White seemed confused at what they were supposed to be doing – that viewers remain in the dark about what is supposed to be happening and what they are supposed to follow and judge.

The film just about holds together thanks to some very good visual shots and Callum being its central figure. Its story is of some significance to its writer-director Aly Migliori but it needs to be told better in a more straightforward way so the audience can more readily identify with Migliori’s intentions.