Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Festival View - Intense Science Fiction Short Films of 2023

In addition to being a nerd who lives and breathes zines and scifi goodness, I happen to be the co-head for Short Film Programming for the Cinequest film festival. That’s right, I get to watch a couple of thousand short films and choose a hundred or so to put on at the festival every year. It’s a fun job (so fun I’ve been doing it for 20 years even without being paid!) and I’ve been lucky enough to see some actors and filmmakers at a critical point in their careers and even help a few along the way.

Every year, there’s an unwritten theme that bubbles up from the best films. Some years, it’s a lightness, a visual aspect, or even just a technique. In 2022 and 2023, it was genre films that took on pretty big issues in a way that wasn’t lasers-and-dragons, but more near-to-home takes.

The best genre short films usually look like every other short film. Rarely is it the window dressing, the costumes or the sets or the effects, that set them apart from your average short. It’s the utter core of the concept. While films like Gattaca and Blade Runner drop you into a visual world that is clearly something else entirely, it’s the films that play in the world we know like Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that have always appealed to me. They look like now, with a few minor exceptions, but the very idea at the heart of them is someplace else.

That can easily be applied to the masterfully dark I XXXX My Sex Doll, which showed at Cinequest this year.

The idea boils down to this—the British government has noticed that the levels of domestic violence have increased to epidemic levels. Like all governmental programs of the 2020s, they decided to regulate all dating by the use of an app where you meet people virtually, and then if you’re deemed suitable, you can date in reality. That seems logical, no? I mean, aren’t governments always getting in the way of our personal relationships in various ways, and they’re often trying to figure out a way to make use of those cell phones we’re all carrying these days.

Now, with the law in place, a new need arose—sex dolls.

Now, these dolls are human-shaped androids, and they’re ultra-realistic. Their voices are modulated, and there are problems with the software, like any other banal technology, and there’s even a customer service line you can call, and our unnamed main character does just that.

And he has to make a return because his doll is broken.

Let me be exceptionally clear—this is a film about men being violent to women, and has a high potential for triggering and general discomfort. It’s a commentary on the violence that lives within many men, and how our current thinking that technology can solve our problems will always bump up against that violence itself. This story could be told as a satire, about how dumb legislative ideas can have unintended consequences, but this is almost 180 degrees away from that. This is blunt, in-your-face, brutal light-of-day stuff meant to slap you out of your assumptions, and about the inevitability of violence. In this world, it can not be destroyed, merely channeled, and here, it is a humanoid who pays that price.

And people know it.

It could easily be read as a condemnation of men, and that’s a valid reading, I think, but there’s also more to it. Our main character is vile, and is viewed as such, but only behind the scenes. Those that know talk, quietly, but they do nothing. How often have we heard that story about humans doing terrible things to other humans and the loudest comments we hear about it are barely amped beyond a whisper as a warning to a friend? When the target of the terror is non-human, there are more questions, of course, but also more self-justification, perhaps. Fay Beck raises all these questions, and they each made me incredibly uncomfortable every time I watched it. It is high cinema when you can manage that sort of effect in such a compact package; she manages it all within 10 minutes.

This is a story that is told with strong aesthetics, the camerawork is precise, and the acting falls in with the kind of genre acting we don’t see as much these days. It’s not subtle, but it’s also not only showy to the edges, never beyond. Every choice made here is meant to make you question why this happens, and after a while, you realise that your assumptions are probably wrong.

Thought-provoking SF like this happens in short films from time to time, but rarely is the landing punch of the content quite this visceral. It is literally hard to watch, though the production is incredibly easy on the eyes and ears. The banality of evil presented here is so utterly thorough that you feel as if it’s the message, but I see it as something that hits deeper. It’s somewhere between a call-out and a cautionary tale, and one that wounds deeply. I went into my first viewing not even knowing the name of the short or anything about it (we do largely blind viewing for programming) and as I passed through the film, I was deeply moved, angered, and made dark realisations that this is a story that Ballard would have understood, Dick would have conceived of, and Butler would have written, though only as a stat down an even darker road.

I XXXX My Sex Doll is still on its festival run but keep an eye open. You can hear director Fay Beck talk about the film for the Deep Fried Film Festival here.

Fast recommendations

AlieNation (trailer). This is a very good short film about the perils of border crossings. Also, there’s a monster, both literally and metaphorically. There’s a lot here to see that makes it a commentary on what we should and shouldn’t be doing with regard to immigration, but also about the view of the ‘other’ we encounter in extraordinary circumstances. It's another punch-to-the-gut short, but it's so well done that I watched it three times to absorb it fully. When you've got a pile of a couple of hundred films you've got to watch in a week, that's a big compliment.

BEBE AI (trailer). Two young people with Down syndrome want to adopt an AI baby in a strange future. They have to fight for it, and get assistance and find new troubles along the way. It’s both a heavy story that deals with the disposableness of people with disabilities, and a somehow heartwarming tale of perseverance. It has elements of A Handmaid's Tale, as well as commentary on the idea of brand control and identification. There are so many great layers to it that it demands your full attention.

POSTED BY: Chris Garcia - Archivist, curator, and professional wrestling enthusiast. @johnnyeponymous