Saturday 29 June 2013

Ellie (2013)

Director: Ricky Lloyd George
Stars: Stefanie Estes, Jeff Alba, Barbara Goodson, Bonnie Bower and Robert E Beckwith
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.
I liked Ellie from moment one, because of the colours. They're lush: natural greens and yellows at an outdoor photoshoot and red indoors at a bar, where the model goes to drown her sorrows. The music finds a way to mirror that in sound. She's the Ellie of the title, of course, and she's not quite who we might think. The first hint is when she introduces herself to the gentleman next to her at the bar and the lights dim, but we discover that she's not human when she swipes the back of her neck to open her belly, so she can empty out three glasses worth of Jack Daniels through a tube in her mechanical innards. Back at the bar, we realise that she's magnetic, both literally, as cutlery on the bar occasionally moves towards her, and figuratively, because the bartender immediately recognises her on the commercial that shows on the bar's TV while she's in the bathroom. That's for Spirit, which could be anything from the abstract beach scene we see.

There's a vast amount of depth here, going far beyond the romance at the heart of the film which sparks up between Ellie and Roger, who feels as suffocated in his job as she does in hers. I found this romance as meaningful as any screen romance between two people who are separated only by convention. I don't know if Ricky Lloyd George, who directed and co-wrote, deliberately aimed to comment on relationships between members of the same sex or different races, but given how much else he's obviously commenting on here, I'd assume that he did. For a story named for and following a robot woman, it's packed to the seams with an exploration of human drives, what we might reference as making us human: the need to be happy and to make others happy, the joy of being wanted and the fear of not being wanted any more, the drive to do what's expected for no better reason than the fact that it's expected. This is an amazingly human story.
Even moving past Ellie and Roger, there's a lot of commentary here about society and especially about the power of advertising, which is a central part of the story. The purpose of advertisers is to convince us what's best, for us and for everyone else, to explain to us in every detail how we should live and how we should act. That's also the realm of another occupation, that of gods. The two merge here in another way too, namely the ability to create life in our own image. There's a lot of debate about ethics in advertising, as it's easy nowadays to enhance reality through magic powers known as PhotoShop plugins, to remove blemishes and improve features, and so create false impressions of reality that can have both positive and negative real world effects. Nina and the advertisers in Ellie go a step further to create 3D models to serve their campaigns, not using graphic manipulation but using robotics. Ellie herself is completely artificial but passed off as real.

And with that, the story goes full circle and asks us that time honoured science fiction question of how to define humanity. What makes us human? How can we measure it? What line can be drawn that uniquivocally divides what is human from what is not? Everything that Ellie does feels human, even though she clearly isn't by any obvious definition we may conjure up. So we have to begin to examine her motivations. Is she doing all these human things because that's how she feels, or is it because that's how she's been programmed, whether literally through code or figuratively through the advertising that aims to program us incessantly from every billboard, magazine and television set. This film, like its thematic cousin, Blade Runner, makes us think not only about the characters we watch but about ourselves too. And in an homage to another classic film, Some Like It Hot, the last line brings us neatly back down to earth. What a wonderful short film this was.

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