Friday 20 July 2012

The Uncanny Valley (2011)

Director: Dean Law
Stars: John Vizcay-Wilson, Sally Richards and Dave Zwolenski
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
I've been seeing mention of the uncanny valley cropping up all over the place lately, especially in the film world. It frequently accompanies discussion about The Adventures of Tintin, a highly realistic animation that Steven Spielberg shot using motion capture, as recommended by Peter Jackson. It came up with regards to Jackson again recently, when he screened previews of The Hobbit at the usual 24 frames per second, because of the negative reaction he received when previewing it at the 48 frames per second he plans to release the film at. It was too real, people said. You see, the better technology gets, the closer visuals approach reality, and we as human beings tend to appreciate that; yet when things become almost real but don't quite reach it, we find that revulsion kicks in. Our minds tend to see 'almost real' simply as wrong and that turnoff is what Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori termed the uncanny valley.

I was initially a little turned off by what writer/director Dean Law does with this film but the more I paid attention, the more I appreciated just how much he managed to do in only fifteen minutes. The first time through, what stands out is the linear storyline that follows Alex, a young man who has always felt a deep kinship to robots. When he was a young boy, his parents bought a robot for the house, a sexy female Asian maid robot to boot. His brother Michael promptly undresses her during a recharge but he's just a curious boy. Alex is attracted on a more fundamental level and he goes on to draw robots for comic books. This storyline has to do with Alex growing up and it feels unsatisfactory in a set of science fiction shorts because it equates a concept dear to the hearts of many science fiction fans with immaturity. Robots are for kids? That's not as overt as William Shatner telling die hard trekkers to 'get a life' but it feels like the same message.

Yet behind this is something much deeper, a meditation on humanity that is deceptively astute. Science fiction has often explored a world in which the non-human has grown so close to human that the two are almost impossible to tell apart. In Blade Runner it took an expert to examine the responses to a set of emotional and empathic questions to tell a replicant from a human being. In Ridley Scott's director's cut, the boundaries between human and non-human are stretched by the implication that Deckard, who hunts replicants, might be a replicant himself. What Dean Law adds to the mix here is the concept that Alex, who we are assured is a real live person, somehow doesn't feel quite right, to the degree that even his friends aren't convinced that he isn't really a robot. The outsider status that he feels because of this is mirrored by his choice of profession as comic book artist. Maybe the uncanny valley is all the more uncanny when you're stuck inside it.

I really like this approach that pairs the traditional robot that seems almost human with the more innovative human that seems almost robot. The clinical feel of the film, aided by clever lighting, backs this up to the point that we start to wonder, even with the assurances we're given. There's a great scene outside a robot brothel where some sort of security guard or cop mistakes Alex for a robot and has to check his eyes before apologising profusely. Imagining that situation helps put Alex's experience into perspective, because he's never been outside of it. No wonder he feels closer to robots than he does to people, but is he any less human because of it? I'm still not sure about where this film takes us in the end, but the more I watch it, the more I'm fascinated by the journey. There's a lot here in a mere quarter of an hour. I'd love to see this expanded to feature length, as long as the result asks more questions but doesn't give more answers.

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