Short Film Review “The Manual”



First, the Recap:

To be isolated from others is to know the chill of loneliness. For even when we make a conscious choice to take time away from the sometimes endless confines of community and fellowship, there eventually comes that moment of realization that being solitary does not bring happiness. It is a dreary future time on the planet Earth, and a lone human being named James (J.J. Johnston) makes his way, struggling to survive, with only the aid of a single companion who is not even a fellow human.  She is Machine (Lauren Emery), James’ guardian who has ultimately raised him since the passing of his parents long ago.

With the only guide to existence found in the teachings of the electronic tome known only as The Manual, Machine has taught James via its Bible passage-infused religious musings, shifted to a point where both man and machine are seen as equals and inheritors of the Creator’s kingdom in the afterlife. Yet, even as James attempts drastic action to kill the depression he suffers from due to lack of any human contact, it becomes an even deeper wake-up call to his tortured heart and soul to test the bounds of one particular “truth” The Manual sets forth.  However, in doing so, what James discovers next is more shockingly jarring than  he could ever have imagined.

Next, my Mind:

For my money, well-executed science fiction needs to either dazzle with its visual splendor by treating you to worlds so utterly fantastical you are transported there (ie: “Avatar”) or otherwise create the eerie, dystopian visions of our own world that give you chills and a hope things would never come to that while feeling empathetic and rooting for those portrayed that are living it (ie: “Oblivion”). With his 29-minute short film effort, writer/director Wil Magness immerses us in the latter by delivering a somber and ultimately freakish vision of a place where only one human being remains after having been raised by a humanoid robot, hence denied any semblance of humanity around him his entire life. Suffering the mind-numbing agony of having only a robot to relate to, it’s a harsh reality as it is, only to be made even more unnervingly surreal and ominous when the jaw-dropper of an ending is revealed. The stark, gray-skied, rain-drenched settings add to this tone of overt inner anguish while the well-orchestrated background score likewise provides appropriate atmosphere.

Johnston does a fine job here in his enacting of James, the last human on a planet torn apart by whatever our imaginations can fathom, trying so desperately to grasp his humanity when all around him is in ruin and the only friend and ally he has is a robot whose main purpose seems to be about quoting The Manual and offering to read James his daily horoscope. The total lack of any real connection between James and Machine has only made him even more alone, and watching as his behavior devolves into total hopelessness, then anger, then startling revelation is all performed wonderfully by Johnston. Then there is Emery as Machine, a female-voiced and embodied robot tasked by James’ parents to be his sole guardian and companion as well as his teacher in the life concepts presented by The Manual. Machine simply does what she is commanded or otherwise programmed to do, so when James strongly confronts her with questions that have no solid answers, it is a potent moment for both characters, and Emery’s voicing of and performance as Machine is solid and believable.

In total, with its underlying commentary about the status of man vs. machine and the integration we all wonder might come about one day in the all-too-near future perhaps, “The Manual” is a excellent piece of indie sci-fi that serves as the reminder of why humans really should find a way to remain in control.

As always, this is all for your consideration and comment.  Until next time, thank you for reading!


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