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.

Apocalypse Now Now: where superstition and technology create monsters in a post-apocalyptic urban dystopia

Michael Mathews, “Apocalypse Now Now” (2017)

Made as a proof-of-concept film on which a television series or a feature film will be based, “Apocalypse Now Now” posits a future dystopian South Africa where supernatural cyber-monsters roam through abandoned cities full of giant heaps of technological junk and people live huddled and frightened lives in slums dominated by fundamentalist Christianity. In this milieu travel two unlikely partners: Baxter Zevcenko (Gavion Dowd), a cynical teenager who may or may not be a serial killer and who is on the run from police for supposedly killing his girlfriend Esme, whom he is searching for; and Dr Ronin (Louw Venter), a bounty hunter of supernatural monsters. In this short film, Dr Ronin uses Baxter as bait to lure a giant lumbering aardvark beastie laden with discarded machine trash into a trap. Dr Ronin’s ruse is briefly interrupted by a crazed woman keen on avenging the death of a loved one and whose encounter with the monster results in a fair amount of tomato ketchup being splashed about.

The characters look good: Baxter resembles a chubby and smug upper-class Harry Potter figure, and he may have a touch of the sociopath about him; Dr Ronin seems a bit undeveloped and his mannerisms derived from a motley collection of characters ranging from Captain Jack Sparrow (of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) to Doc Sportello of the film “Inherent Vice”. The relationship between the two could be more combative and for the time being in this short film, the actors appear to be relying on stereotypes of upper-class, know-all schoolboy brat and doped-out hippie shaman investigator.

The environment in which the two unlikely buddies travel around in is very well realised: the giant praying mantis blends in with the post-apocalyptic / post-industrial dystopia, superstition born of local African and apocalyptic Protestant Christian traditions oppresses communities, and the weird monsters inhabiting the landscape straddle two worlds of dystopian science fiction and a fantasy fusion of two very different cultures that are hostile to each other.

I can see a television mini-series being made out of this film but I am not sure that it can sustain a television series over several seasons unless the scriptwriters are prepared to add more quirky characters and the main characters themselves are allowed to develop in ways that take them far from what they are in the short film.

Regulation: character study of how a police state controls citizens through small decisions and actions

Ryan Patch, “Regulation” (2019)

Set in the not-too distant future, in perhaps a post-industrial / hyper-cybernetic age, this short film character study is an intimate and perhaps horrifying snapshot of a controlling police state as manifested in the mundane actions of a low-level functionary. A social worker, Mia (Sunita Mani) drives out into the country with the task of ensuring that all children in the district have received their scheduled medication, dispensed through a skin patch, that controls their emotions and moods. She stops at a farm where she knows (through information on her iPad) that a child, Kayleigh (Audrey Bennett), lives there; moreover, the girl is behind in her medical schedule and does not have this patch. The girl’s mother (Tessa Drake) tells Mia that Kayleigh refuses to wear the patch and she herself is in no mind to force the child into wearing what they both refer to as “the happy patch”.

Mia seeks out Kayleigh who turns out to be highly precocious and imaginative, drawing the social worker into her game featuring an invisible leopard and fighting a fleet of space pirates. Mia attempts to convince Kayleigh into agreeing to accept the happy patch but the child is not persuaded even when Mia tells her about her own younger brother who committed suicide from depression. Finally fobbed off by the girl, Mia has to decide what to do next.

Good cinematography featuring close-ups of plants and caterpillars, and of the social worker and the girl’s faces as they play the game and then talk afterwards, establishes an intimacy between the two and emphasises the dilemma Mia faces in whether she should leave the girl and allow her through her play activities to regulate her own emotions (and risk punishment) or report the girl and her mother. What Mia decides next will either push back the encroachment of the State on people’s personal lives or allow it, through one child at a time, to dominate people’s physical and mental states completely – at the cost of their individuality. The acting and the rapport between the actors playing Mia and Kayleigh are well done, and one can see the strain of the decision Mia has to make at the end of the film.

Many viewers may see in this film an argument against compulsory vaccination and other forms of State compulsion upon families. “Regulation” is also very much a film about how even individual bottom-dwelling inhabitants of a large and oppressive system can either advance it or resist it (perhaps at the cost of their own lives) through seemingly insignificant decisions and actions they may take.

Hybrids: a hybrid short film of too many cliches and stereotypes

Patrick Kalyn, “Hybrids” (2013)

This sci-fi live action short seems to have been made as a proof-of-concept film to promote an idea for a television series to film studio executives. In six minutes, a devoted mother (Daniella Evangelista), stunned to discover her daughter Abby (Kaitlyn Bernard) mutilated to death by mysterious strangers only moments after the girl kissed Mum goodbye in their garden, has become a vigilante soldier dedicated to wiping out the horde of insectoid critters responsible for the child’s death in a post-apocalyptic urban environment. Most of the film is taken up by the mother being attacked by and beating the living daylights out of the monsters with a variety of weapons. Using some ingenious hologram technology, the mother tricks a swarm of creatures into attacking her image and blows them up. She knows however that there are far, far more of those monsters where they came from and the next day will be like the previous day: she will continue hunting them and killing them until one day they will all be dead.

For a short film, the special effects and the cinematography are quite good, and what acting does appear looks adequate for the task. The music is the usual cliched Hollywood orchestral schmaltz so the less said about it, the better. Unfortunately the narrative is very stereotyped and derivative: Mum is clearly modelled on the Sarah Connor character made famous by Linda Hamilton in The Terminator series of movies. How the mother came to be such a mighty warrior skilled in handling a variety of firearms, throwing knives and swords, and karate-chopping her enemies isn’t explained very well. The monsters don’t seem very intelligent: they are looking for a “key” that is possessed only by humans and which appears to be part of their genetic make-up so they insist on killing humans to extract what they need. If one assumes the monsters came from outer space, they surely would have the intelligence (or at least the intelligence that enabled them to build the spacecraft to travel to Earth) to try to co-operate with humans to identify the “key” and try to reproduce it themselves.

The final shot of the film presents an ambiguity: some of the monsters are clearly working with humans and at this point, the realisation dawns on this viewer that the monsters already contain some human genetic material combined with other non-human genetic material. Whether the female soldier is allied with these monsters and armed humans or not remains unknown. The whole film though presents an idea that is not at all original, relies too much on physical conflict and violence, and the special effects to make this happen, and uses a plot filled with cliches about family, revenge and survival in a quarantined city. The notion of humans and extraterrestrial creatures working in tandem to eliminate other humans – perhaps because those humans don’t wish to serve as slaves to an elite in a hierarchical society – is also not original. There are too many tired stereotypes and recycled ideas in this film short and the concept it promotes most likely needs retiring.

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?

Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

Custom Order: a thin plot and equally thin characters in a story on commodifying identity

Will Lowell, “Custom Order” (2017)

Looks like I hit a dud sci-fi short for once on the DUST channel with Will Lowell’s “Custom Order”. For a film lasting some 13 minutes, the plot is very bare-bones thin and its characters are unremarkable and stereotyped. Aaron (Matt McGorry) has just broken up with Chelsea (Maya Erskine) who, despairing of Aaron’s inability to commit himself and open up his feelings for her, has left his house in a huff with just a note on his answering machine telling him she’ll come back to get her hair-dryer and a few other items left behind. Aaron promptly orders a robot sex doll to be delivered to his place. He puts her various parts together and powers up her battery and, voila! – Nicole (Sophie Kargman) is born. Aaron promptly puts her through her paces and she passes the sex test with flying colours. The pair quickly establish a daily routine, Nicole always being available for sex and also able to keep the house in order. One day, Aaron gets a sudden visit from Chelsea, returning for the hair-dryer, who also is a bit curious as to who has been keeping the house tidy …

It is astonishing that the whole time during the film, there is very little character development in any of the characters and Nicole shows no sign of independently acquiring any self-awareness and the knowledge that she is a sex slave. Aaron comes off as a socially inept and rather grubby character. Chelsea may be or may not be having second thoughts about leaving Aaron, and the viewer is left to try to second-guess what Chelsea is going to do, at least until she discovers Aaron’s secret, at which point the film ends on a cliff-hanger.

The film might have worked much better if the same actress had played both Chelsea and Nicole, so that issues of identity and the extent to which a person can regard his/her appearance as an important part of his/her identity, a part that presumably cannot and should not be replicated, can be explored, even if superficially. This would say something about what Aaron sees in Chelsea that he continues to yearn for. Nicole for her part could have developed her own personality, one perhaps more sensitive and sympathetic to whatever needs Aaron has that he has yet to acknowledge than Chelsea has ever been. Chelsea’s reaction on seeing Nicole needs a better mix of horror, fear and upset.

Disappointingly, one doesn’t really gain much insight about how robots in future will be used to pander to their owners’ whims and how they will represent a commodification of the physical and psychological features and quirks that make a person a supposedly unique individual. What questions might arise when a person discovers his/her doppelganger being used as a sex toy and domestic slave are barely touched upon.

Colony: a stereotyped sci-fi horror treatment of colonisation and possession

Catherine Bonny, “Colony” (2018)

Partly informed by the history of early European settlement in Australia, as well as perhaps stories of the treatment of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe, this short film combines dystopian science fiction, horror, revenge with its unexpected consequences, and the relationship of colonialists with the land they settle and with that land’s original inhabitants. In particular, this film examines how the original inhabitants of the land react to the presence of the alien colonists and how they might punish those who damage and devastate their environment by infiltrating those they wish to strike.

In the distant future, a prison colony is established on a distant planet. Sardonically named “Heaven”, the prison colony is located near the seashore and its female inmates, under the watchful supervision of their male guards, are forced to farm vegetables and fruit in very harsh conditions. The food they manage to grow does not sustain them much and they progressively grow weak. In this prison live two sisters, Rhian (Emma Burnside) and Seren (Alicia Hellingman), the latter of whom was apparently smuggled by Rhian onto the spaceship that brought them to the desolate planet in defiance of the rules that stipulated that only fit people could board the craft. Rhian has an arrangement with one guard in which he provides whatever medicine he can in exchange for sex. As the days go by, and the two women try to negotiate their way through the hostility and jealousy of the other women prisoners, and the caprices of the guards, Rhian is drawn to the sea that laps the shores and breaks over the rocks of the coast: ghost voices and rattling sounds call to her and when she looks at the ocean, a strange light appears beneath the waves and beckons to her. When she gashes her leg on a rock and the wound is severe, the seawater heals the wound and when she retrieves an old brown apple that she has thrown into the water, it becomes green and new.

One day the guards trick Rhian into bringing Seren to them by telling her they have medicine but Rhian discovers the ruse too late. The two women fight the guards but Seren comes off the worse for her encounter and Rhian is unable to save her. Rhian vows vengeance for her sister’s death and the strange forces in the sea beckon her with promises to help – but as with her earlier arrangement with the guard, what this natural world wants from her is more than she reckoned with.

The film is rather uneven in its pacing: for much of its running time until the last few minutes, it is quite slow and leisurely, delineating the nature of the colony, the hierarchy that exists, and the two sisters’ uncertain place within it. Then violence happens abruptly and Rhian, stopped by the voices in her head, appears curiously apathetic. The conclusion takes place some time after Seren’s death – a day perhaps, maybe even a week, a month, a year later – and despite its casual tone, a few changed details in Rhian’s appearance tell us that the forces that Rhian aligns with are going to be horrific, and that Heaven will soon become Hell.

It is a pity that the film is slow to develop the relationships of the people in Heaven as they come across as stereotypes rather than people we would care about. Even Rhian ends up no more than a rather selfish and mercenary young woman, susceptible to manipulation in situations where the benefits might outweigh the costs. She ends up meeting more than her match in the alien environment but the alien possession and colonisation of her mind and body produce a stereotyped monster.

The film’s treatment of its themes and ideas turns out somewhat shallow and cliched. Perhaps if the pace had been a bit quicker and the plot tighter, the action might have been better spread out in the 14-minute running time, and the price Rhian pays for avenging her sister’s death could have been elaborated in more depth. The actors might have had more time and opportunity to explore their characters and given them more complexity as they confront the harsh prison conditions and pressures, and the unforgiving alien environment that will soon kill them viciously.

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

Andre LeBlanc, “They Watch” (2016)

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

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

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