From the opening shot, it’s all falling apart, a fragment of memory creeping up behind Frank Lerner triggered by a photograph of a place he has never been but which speaks of freedom. Frank is a prisoner who has committed no crime of which he is aware, who has not been charged to his knowledge, who cannot communicate with the outside world, whose only contact is Howard, the Life Support Operator who monitors but conspicuously avoids useful answers to any questions.
His physical presence nothing more than a camera which descends from the ceiling of Frank’s cell, Howard’s voice is warm, almost concerned, but if he knows more than he telling he doesn’t let on. Frank is trying to negotiate, to be reasonable, but Howard is limited to his instructions to keep Frank alive, to process him.
Frank is concerned for his dog, begging Howard to pass a message requesting someone check on him, but “I don’t have access” is the repeated response, and with no memory of how or why he is there Frank keeps looping around a coffee shop conversation, the memory morphing in the nightmare of his capture. Did Gabby set him up? Was her purpose to identify him?
Written and directed by Travis Milloy, the post-production of Somnio may have been funded through a Kickstarter campaign but beautifully and atmospherically filmed with flashbacks to a modern cityscape with the eerieness of another time and place hinted at by the digital enhancements, the brightly lit flying cars and aspects of the minimal score reminding of Blade Runner, it is as professionally presented as any studio feature.
From the outset there are aspects of Cube in the contained environment, the lack of cues as to what is going on, and also the dilemma prison of Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief, and like that novel it is concerned with the malleability of memory, while the dislocation, the confusion, the shifting personal perspective reminds of the deep space hibernation sickness thriller Pandorum also scripted by Milloy, as well as Source Code, the re-living of moments in different ways, pulling information from memories, subconscious wishes rather than reality.
Despite Howard’s assertion that he’s from Austin but grew up near Seattle, Frank soon realises this refers to his inception date and advanced programming, and the ever-present lens cannot help but reflect HAL and GERTY, another advanced computer which likely approaches sentience but is constrained by what it is programmed to do, Moon also echoed in the isolation, the tumbling towards an inevitability which can’t be shaken, though on a smaller scale.
Largely a two hander between Christopher Soren Kelly and the disembodied voice of Jesse D Arrow, the banter between the two is entertaining: Howard is a fast learner, particularly sarcasm, and as much as Frank resents it the machine is his only company. As much a prisoner as Frank himself, while Howard states this is the first time he’s been caretaker in reality he could have performed that duty hundreds of times, his databanks wiped each time.
Essentially a waiting game, the concern is whether the reveal will justify the journey to get to the answers and there is no getting around the fact that as good as the two leads are some scenes are stilted, the film caught in a Möbius as much as Frank. Ultimately there are reasons everything is happening but there are sparse clues for the viewer to assemble before it breaks to the outside world which seems just as much a dream, desert and wind farms, empty expanses and solitude.
Somnio is currently playing the festival circuit
Huge thanks to Travis for arranging for us to see the film