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Monday, 30 December 2013

The Phoenix (2012)

Director: Carmelo Zucco
Stars: Alex Cardillo, Jim Bradford, Brie Barker and Howard Rosenstein
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Maybe I think too much about science fiction shorts, but isn't that the point of them? Here's another one that I liked but had problems with for entirely uncinematic reasons. The core of the film revolves around a concept that's gradually easing into the mainstream, that cybernetic technology will improve to the point where we can effectively, for the most part, conquer death. This near future film explores a small human story after that point has been reached, in which 'cybernetics have done away with the fragility of the human body' and little Ben's grandpa, his sole companion, doesn't have to die. He's old and frail and his body is failing, but instead of just giving up the ghost and leaving his grandson alone, he can merely check into wherever and swap out his human shell for a nice shiny metal one, in which he can continue on and, presumably, feel a heck of a lot better while he does so. He isn't rejuvenated, he isn't cloned and he isn't fixed, instead he's replaced, all except his consciousness and his clothes.

Before this happens, we see an old man, presumably actor Jim Bradford, with worried eyes and wildly receding white hair. After the change, after he's risen again like the phoenix of the title, we discover why he was really cast: we're not going to get to experience any more of him than his voice, which is perfect for the task, the sort that we intrinsically want to trust. 'It'll still be me,' he told young Ben, 'on the inside.' Now Ben has to adjust to that reality, as do we. I can totally buy into the concepts thus far, because, after all, we're already doing this to a lesser degree. What are pacemakers, hearing aids or prosthetic limbs, after all, if not primitive cybernetic replacements for faulty or dying flesh? I can also, having lived in the United States for the last decade with their reliance on health insurance, buy into a scenario where the rich get better care than the poor. What I don't buy is those two facts manifesting themselves here in Grandpa coming back in a Tron suit and a huge birdlike helmet with googly eyes.
As the main thrust of the film runs on and this unlikely couple hike into the wilds so Grandpa can toss his ashes into a waterfall and Ben can come to terms with his only relative being the sort of robot we laugh at in serials from the forties, I couldn't get past this. Fine, make his new human suit uglier than the boss of the company that makes them, but why so much so that he can't even lean over without stabbing himself in the chest? This is just tech; you can buy an expensive phone with all the gimmicks or a cheap one with crappy battery life, but both are going to look current generation. None are going to be ten pound monsters with antennae the size of your kid sister. I don't know if I'm alone with this issue, but it was a big one for me. Neat and far more believable little touches like Grandpa's batteries coming in different flavours couldn't get me past it. And that's a shame, because the human side of this story is explored well, if inevitably limited by the film's sixteen minute running time.

There's a great movie somewhere in these ideas, especially now with the controversy over Obamacare prompting Americans to wonder why they're the last civilised country on the face of the earth without nationalised healthcare. Unfortunately that great movie isn't this one, which is relegated to the level of merely being promising. While I can't buy into this particular robot Grandpa, his rather stunning change of appearance does highlight well what writer/director Carmelo Zucco clearly aimed to do, which is to starkly contrast the before with the after to explore how little Ben reacts to the wild change. He asks all the right questions and Alex Cardillo, who plays him, carries a capable mixture of wary adjustment and youthful tolerance. With Jim Bradford's reassuring voice to guide him, it's a safe bet that Ben will find a way to deal. What isn't explored is how long Grandpa will, along with a whole heck of a lot more. I like the way that The Phoenix asks questions. I just wanted more and I don't agree with all the answers.

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