Monday, August 04, 2014

Fantasia ’14: Flesh Computer (short)

Even if singularity is not yet nigh, our understanding of consciousness is significantly evolving. The demarcation between humanity and computers will likely become increasingly porous. In fact, a handyman has apparently created a breakthrough AI utilizing organic matter. Unfortunately, he happens to be the super of a building right smack in the middle of the worst urban pathologies imaginable in Ethan Shaftel’s short film Flesh Computer (trailer here), which screened during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Like Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, Flesh directly uses the words of an expert commentator to explain its underlying concepts. On paper, this sounds rather dry (or perhaps something of a cheat), but in practice it works surprisingly well. After all, the power of ideas is always compelling. In the case of Flesh, it is NYU’s David Chalmers who is heard via a neighbor’s television explaining our evolving conception of consciousness.

Frankly, Chalmers is the best part of Flesh (although production designer Nathalie Ruiz and art director Alec Joler earn credit for the giving the film a highly distinctive look). It is very cool how Shaftel’s screenplay addresses such heady concepts, but the narrative follows a pretty standard arc. You also really have to wonder why the Handyman would build such an advanced construct in such a beleaguered environment. There are also suggestions of greater integration between the human and the machine that frustratingly remain unexplained.

In many ways, Flesh feels like a proof of concept short. It would definitely be rewarding to see Shaftel (and Chalmers) expand on these themes of sentiency and intelligence in a longer film. Considering Flesh leaves viewers wanting more, it can probably therefore be deemed a success. Flesh Computer should likely have considerable festival life ahead of it, following its recent Fantasia and Dances with Films screenings.