The Kid: minimalist proof-of-concept short that raises intriguing questions about its themes and issues

Nicholas Wenger, “The Kid” (2018)

“The Kid” is a six-minute proof-of-concept film made to demonstrate the potential of certain themes and issues that a longer and more specific screenplay, currently being written at the time of this review, will address. The main characters, Shelby (Ellen Wroe) and Asa (Evan Alex), are on the run from the authorities in downtown Los Angeles. They turn down an alley in a slum neighbourhood and discover they have hit a dead end. The men chasing them look like a gang of thugs but could also be plainclothes police officers or security officers working for a private company in disguise. The men all on Shelby but the woman bravely fights back with a strength far beyond what her slim slight figure is capable of and with martial arts skills that would require several lifetimes to achieve. After flooring two men, she is shot in the forehead at point blank range by the group’s leader and she slumps dead to the ground. The men beckon Asa to come with them; he will do but only after he pays his respects to Shelby first by holding her hand. One of the surviving men holds Asa’s other hand to take him but then discovers that a strange force is taking over him and sucking the life out of him …

The action is fast paced with very minimal dialogue and viewers can have a lot of fun guessing at how and why Shelby and Asa came to be together and why they are being pursued. Is the superhuman power Asa demonstrates in the short film the only one he has or does he have other strange and incredible powers as well? Can his power/s be used for committing evil acts as well as good ones? Are there others like Asa who literally have the power of transferring and bestowing life on some people by denying it to others? What might some of the consequences of such a power be? It seems that Shelby has been a fortunate recipient of others’ life-force: how might receiving others’ life energy affect her in the long run? Will she suffer any life-threatening side effects? And who are the people who want what Asa has?

Wroe and Alex do good work in establishing their characters’ loyalty to one another and the interdependence that exists between them. He relies on her to protect him and she relies on him as well. Apart from this, the film looks very workman-like with the level of cinematography and minimal characterisation expected for an action thriller sci-fi short.

Seam: an action thriller SF allegory of societies under siege from government and global oppression

Elan Dassani, Rajeev Dassani, “Seam” (2017)

An excellent little film that could serve as a pilot for a television series, “Seam” posits that in the near future, after a global war between cyborgs and humans, cyborgs will be living and working separately from regular humans in the cities, towns and the countryside, and the two groups will be allowed to interact only in militarised border zones known as “seams”. Human societies by then will have become de facto panopticon police states in which activity is monitored by authorities using drones to spy on people and, if necessary, destroy them. The major aspect of this film is that there are cyborgs still living among humans, even partnering with them and having children with them; moreover, these cyborgs are suicide sleeper agents working for a secret resistance organisation which itself monitors government oppression of human beings.

The film divides into two parts, one a minor part that takes place in a Chinese city and the second major part set in a town somewhere in the Middle East. The major link between these two parts is the effect on human relationships that the rival politics between oppressive government and resistance forces exerts with devastating results. In the Chinese part, a family is left without a father (Stephen Au), and in the Middle Eastern part, Ayana (Rakeen Saad) and her soldier husband (Khaled al Ghwairi) must part forever because one of them is the sleeper agent carrying information to the resistance organisation, located in a remote desert, which the authorities, represented by the Commander (Oded Fehr) and the Controller (Ulka Simone Mohanty) are determined to thwart.

The entire cast does a great job in the breathless cat-and-mouse action thriller game that takes place, and this viewer quickly started cheering Ayana and husband Yusef on against great odds. The cinematography is so good that the desert environment becomes a major actor character in its own right as the historical mythical source of the Semitic-speaking peoples and as a continuing inspiration to them. The special effects, emphasising holograms, are well done, and the actors’ interaction with them is also spot-on natural and casual.

The film can be interpreted as an allegory of the reality in far too many parts of the world today: people angered at oppression, losing hope and ready to sacrifice future love and happiness, may give in to their fury to join extremist organisations and become suicide bombers and terrorists. Whoever controls them may draw on their history and culture to manipulate their charges and set them on destructive paths. Oppressors in their turn become more extremist in their own ideologies and behaviours and actions towards those they themselves rule and control. At the centre of the film though is the question that science fiction has posed since its origin as a distinct cultural phenomenon: what is a human and what makes someone a human?

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.

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.

Protocole Sandwich: a likeable and subversive commentary on conformism, hysteria and denial in Western society

Valerie Bousquie, Josephine Meis, Antoine Vignon, Benjamin Warnitz, “Protocole Sandwich” (2019)

This very likeable and comic-strip-styled animation comes across as a satirical commentary on conformism, mass hysteria and mass denial in Western society. A group of rangers called the Sandwich Protocol are sent to monitor suspicious activity around an antenna tower installation of some sort in a remote desert. The rangers use handheld guns that look like portable electric fans to dispel apparent glitches in their world of reality. They use these guns on an elderly woman and her pet raven: the woman survives (so she’s real enough) but the raven fails the test and is packed away in a special box to be taken back to HQ. During a lunch-break, one of the rangers decides to check something at the antenna itself and discovers something that looks like a sabotage attempt. He is accosted by a strange man who is trying to tell him something and to demonstrate it as well …

Although at the time I saw it, the film had no English-language subtitles, the visual narrative suggests that the rangers themselves are employed to maintain an artificial semblance of reality and the elderly woman and the strange man represent threats to that particular Matrix. The strange man in particular is trying to convince the ranger that he and his fellow rangers have been deceived to believe that they live in the real world when in fact they don’t and the real world actually exists outside the artificial world their masters have created. This means that the raven dies because it is a real creature and not a product of the artificial world of the film. The rangers treat the woman and the stranger as though they are infected by a mysterious and deadly disease, and their desert world as potentially dangerous.

While the stranger ends up being subdued by the rangers in a black box and they leave the box in the charge of the ranger who first encountered the fellow, that ranger seems to have absorbed enough of the stranger’s ranting message that he appears ready to open the box and release the disruptive chaos that will destroy the artificial desert world and reveal the real world. At this point the film ends leaving the audience to speculate what the ranger might do: will he obey and conform just as he has always done or will his curiosity overcome habit?

The animation resembles a Tintin comic strip and the gadgets that the rangers in their special hermetic suits use to combat the dangers of the real world intruding into their careful virtual digital world are very comic. These weapons, the protective clothing the rangers wear and the triangular symbols on their uniforms are hilariously subversive comments on the extreme collective hysteria present in Western society that seeks to stamp out heterodox opinion and information and enforce a cult-like outlook and ideology. Even the food the rangers eat – sandwich triangles – shows the intrusive extent of their brainwashing. The colours are bright and call attention to the unreality of the world that the rangers believe is real. The glitches, representing tears in the virtual world (and suggesting how unstable it is), are beautifully done; in a climactic scene, they turn the animation into a gorgeously psychedelic riot of colour and imagery. As is usual in Gobelins shorts, the voice acting is superb and makes the action seem more real than it actually is.

While the plot will not bear a treatment longer than its six to seven minutes, it already packs considerable information about the kind of dysfunctional society that exists in its world and how freedom and reality are physically so close to humans and yet still so far away.

In Orbit: a distinctive visual style in telling a rough story about survivor guilt

Soham Chakraborty, Hanxu Chen, M Joffily, Justin Polley, Julie Trouve, “In Orbit” (2019)

Similar to Gobelins’ 2018 release “Quand j’ai remplac√© Camille” in its theme of survivor guilt, “In Orbit” uses impressive visual imagery to explore an astronaut’s feelings of guilt at not having been able to save her colleague and lover from a space accident that has left her comatose, and the astronaut being forced by memory, visual associations in her work environment, and the mere fact that she is transferring to another work unit that will involve working outside a spaceship to relive the incident and gradually accept it. The film appears to owe a debt to past Alfred Hitchcock films (in particular, “Vertigo”) and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its ideas and images.

The colour palette of the film is dominated by blues, purples and dark colours which mirror the astronaut Sonia’s depressed moods (though red for danger and yellow also appear). In a number of scenes there is an emphasis on the huge scale and empty rooms of the space station where Sonia is currently resident, making her and her fellow travellers look very small and at times as much isolated from one another physically as well as psychologically from the guilt-ridden Sonia. Changes in viewpoint reinforce a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia as Sonia is pursued by her demons: in one memorable scene, the audience viewpoint does a somersault up to the top of the vault-like corridors Sonia runs through, following the lines of the walls, and then focuses (almost vulture-like) on the tiny figure running across the screen.

Even though all the action takes place on a space station, and the horror exists mainly in Sonia’s mind, this film has most of the necessary elements of a haunted-house horror film: the changes in viewpoint, the dark colours and shades, the suspense and anxiety, irrational fears and memories playing tricks on the mind. While the plot is rough around the edges and has no real resolution – we do not even know if Sonia is still on the material plane of existence when she finally meets with her lover – the film has succeeded as a science-fiction horror film in its visual style.

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.

Best Friend: a short comment on loneliness, addiction and substituting virtual reality for the real thing

Nicholas Olivieri, Shen Yi, Juliana De Lucca, Varun Nair, David Feliu, “Best Friend” (2019)

In the not-so-distant future, a lonely unnamed man find solace in a drug called Best Friend, implanted into the temple near his left brow, which gives him a stack of virtual friends and girlfriend. So dependent is he on these friends, who can be available 24/7 and offer him plenty of superficial comfort and support but no real love and connection, much less advice and criticism of his addiction, that his face and physical condition display all the hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked side effects of his psychological and physical dependence. Even his tears are coloured with the yellow chemicals leaking from the implant. On top of that, he is prepared to do anything to sustain his addiction, to the extent that when he needs to get a new batch of the liquid capsules to top up the supply in the implant and finds a queue at the nearest Best Friend store, his “girlfriend” lures him away to an illegal booth in a deserted alley supplying Best Friend at black market prices – but a stranger, equally addicted and just as determined to get his hands on the capsules, follows him, punches him cold, and seizes a shard of glass from the ground in the alley …

A comment on modern society’s need for surrogate reality instead of the real thing, loneliness and alienation, and the addictions such anomie can give rise to, this film works best as a basis for a television series or movie script but no more. The characters represent stereotypes and viewers are not invited to feel much sympathy for them. Only when the stranger appears does the film start to move in a significant direction. The shock comes when the main character is finally named by his friends … only (spoiler alert) they are different friends because he has had to get a new implant … and he appears unaffected by the loss of his previous friends.

The film makes no connection between capitalist ideology and the phenomena it describes which are products of that ideology and its assumptions put in practice: the view of capitalism that humans are essentially materialist and self-interested individuals in competition and conflict with one another, producing a dog-eat-dog world where co-operation and real social connections are treated with suspicion, yet humans still find themselves yearning for something more than the latest gadgets and entertainments. In such a world, fragmentation, isolation and alienation are not only inevitable but encouraged – because if they lead to individuals pursuing remedies that can be commodified, leading to addictions that can also be exploited for profit, they will be.