Monday 1 July 2013

Restitution (2013)

Director: Justin O'Neal Miller
Stars: Jason MacDonald, Luke Donaldson, Catherine Dyer and Jasmine Burke
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.
Restitution was another sci-fi short that knocked my socks off at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. There's a lot going on in this one, some of it very subtle, and I don't know if many of the audience members really caught the particularly brutal key twist, which stayed with me for a long while after I'd left the theatre. At heart, it explores the point at which humanity and technology meet, using two very different examples. First up, Preston Sanders finds out the hard way that his wife, struggling with the loss of one of her two sons, had the survivor cloned without even raising the idea to him first. That's as emotional as the other is prosaic, but it's sprung on us as ruthlessly as having twins in the house again is sprung on him. It's the user interface he uses in his work as an architect, perhaps the best, most seamless, imagining of such I've seen in film. It's just a pen and a sheet of paper, but they're digital and manipulated by an abacus on his desk.

It's the seamless nature of both of these that stands out for me. Sanders plays with his son for a little while without ever realising that it wasn't his son at all. Instead of Timmy, it was his cloned twin, Tommy. Given that they call each other 'poppa' and 'son', there's surely comment here on Preston's lack of emotional connection to his family, especially as Susan, his wife, is quite clearly devastated, but it's also a commentary on this seamless use of technology. Susan simply went to a doctor's office one day, did the necessary and came home with a new son, that her husband is unable to distinguish from the real one. That's precisely the same trick that writer/director Justin O'Neal Miller plays on us with the 'computer' in Preston's office. We see him doodling away at the outset, but only later in the film do we even realise that he's using a computer. Lost in thought, his pen leaks all over the paper, but he makes an effortless gesture and the ink blot disappears.

The impact here is substantial. Because I work in IT for a living, I've spent years hating what gets thrown on screen under that banner. Often it's pure ignorance on the part of a filmmaker, but still more often it's a deliberate misrepresentation of technological reality to shortcut a story. This film, hand firmly on heart, is the first time I've ever seen future technology on screen and not only not hated it, but been actively stunned in a good way by what I saw. This future version of a digitiser tablet used for computer aided design is never once even commented on, because it's routine in this man's life. To apply an overused tech phrase in its truest context, it just works. It's invisible, background, not worthy of mention. The technology takes a back seat, so that the human beings in the equation can do what they do best, to create. And with that established, Miller applies the precise same thing to another technology: human cloning.
Cloning in films tends to be seen as science gone mad, the one step too far category that started with Frankenstein and never really went away, merely updated itself to next year's breakthrough instead. If I counted right, the word 'clone' is only mentioned once in this script, though the whole thing is about cloning and the very title of the film is a euphemism for one step in that process, a returns policy and undo button all in one. Just like the invisible computer Sanders uses, we never see the technology in play, just its interface, which in this instance is a doctor's office. 'I was just expecting it to be more difficult,' Sanders says but, as illustrated so well with his computer, that's the entire point of technology. It just works. The unasked question to the audience, especially as we know something that Sanders doesn't at this point, is whether that's always a good thing. Do we really want some things to be so easy that they can be done without thought?

Miller surely crafted this film as impeccably as someone crafted the spiral staircase in Sanders's office out of wood. He's building up a solid amount of experience as a set designer, on TV shows like The Walking Dead. That occupation doesn't surprise me in the slightest, as the opening of the film showcases the set design over everything else and it was the interface design that blew me away first. Perhaps it's the incessant attention to detail in that function that helped him to make this film so seamless as a writer, producer and director. He also did the digital effects. The acting is consistently solid, whether it's the experienced adults or young Luke Donaldson playing twins, but nobody stands out above anyone else here, whether they're in front of the camera or behind it. Everyone plays their part in support of ideas that wait for us to notice them. How many clones did you see in this film? This is impeccable stuff, worthy of many return visits.

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