Thursday, November 29, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: FRAGILE MACHINE (2005)

Produced by Aoineko 

Art, Animation, Direction, and Music by Ben Steele
Story by Ben Steele, Darren Dugan,Cliff Hockersmith, John Pickney
Music by John Banks, John Hockersmith,Cliff Hockersmith, Ben Steele, Jay Steinberg

Voice Cast:
Xi as Leda Nea
Molly Pickney as Goho/Mary Nea



"If a technological feat is possible, man will do it. Almost as if it's wired into the core of our being."
                  ---Major Motoko Kusanagi in the movie Ghost in the Shell (1995)   

" Only her soul is real."
                  ---narrator in the movie Fragile Machine (2005)



There's a cyborg woman, alone in her high tech apartment. She looks like a cyborg, that doll-like appearance familiar to anyone who's ever seen the anime Ghost in the Shell, but it's kind of hard to tell. This is a computer graphics movie, and so all of the human characters look like she does: cyborg dolls, simplified, stylized, maybe even mass-produced. Are they products or people or both? This woman is named Leda Nea, and she sits up in bed, and contemplates the futuristic metropolis she is part of--once again, similar to Motoko Kusanagi, the Major, from Ghost in the Shell. There are some children's toys in the apartment, and this is a departure from Ghost in the Shell: the Major was a committed loner, a hyper-individualist who wanted to transcend her own being, confound the categories of male and female biology and gender identity, slip the bonds of collectivist military/corporate/bureaucratic culture, and explore the new depths and new heights of a transhumanist existence. Leda Nea has children's toys but no child. The implication is that she is quite alone and, in another difference from the Major, not by choice. She once had a little daughter, but now she's gone.


We see a shimmering ultimate dream city built out of computer graphics and  photographic references of cities from the real world (looks a bit like Los Angeles, maybe some shots from Tokyo and Seoul)--a mixture of the real and the digital inhabited by doll-like video game avatar-people. The city has been constructed by the impenetrably named Göln Remedios corporation as a combination city state/executive headquarters/work site/massively scaled social engineering experiment. Göln Remedios built the city to be one with the company, and all who work there are both citizens and employees. Göln Remedios's main business concerns seem to be robotics and AI, but now they have embarked on a new venture: the merger of artificial and biological systems. The virtual people who live in this city seem to already be cyborgs in the sense of being humans whose lives are dependent upon high technology, and their uniform, doll-like appearance may even be meant to suggest some kind of assembly line/vat grown origin for the city state's population as a whole. The company has everyone under intense surveillance: visual, audio, biometrics--every man, woman, and child has been rigorously quantified down to the ATCG units of their genetic makeup. GR has an entire population as a pool for experimentation, and it wants to take robotics, cybernetics, and AI to the next level. They want to locate the human soul, in situ, extract it, and insert it into an artificial robot body. The company wants to achieve the impossible synthesis of science and spirituality, magic and technology, and, in the process, give birth to a new being and a new conception of nature. To that end, they choose an experimental subject: Leda Nea, who is revealed to be a scientist working on something called Project Zero for GR.

Leda Nea receives a new dictate from the company. She will report to a laboratory facility, sign a legal release form (in a mostly digital, heavily cyborged future, you know something sinister is afoot when your bosses have you sign an actual piece of paper . . .), and be subjected to bizarre and horrific experiments which will rip the soul from her biological body and put it into a robot body.

The process by which the company plans to remove her soul is rather vague: do they mean the soul as a poetic way of referring to the central nervous system? Or is the company actually trying to capture the irreducible spirit that is spoken of in religious and metaphysical traditions? Is it both? Is a "soul" electricity, chemistry, fluids, neurons in unique configurations? Or is there something more, something transcendent, transpersonal, some spark of divine mojo-substance? Maybe it's none of these things, just a fantasy. We're talking about a movie, after all. But the movie insists on its own reality, and that fictional reality seems to posit the soul as all of the above: CNS, spirit, nerves, brain, blood, electricity, chemistry all bound up together in a fantastic braid of consciousness, spirit, and being.

GR, in the grand tradition of such sinister megacorporations as Yoyodyne, Soylent Corporation, Umbrella Pharmaceuticals, Tyrell Corp, Weyland-Yutani, Cyberdyne, and Omni Consumer Products is about to unleash a disaster of biblical proportions. What, exactly, is the business plan here? Oh, that's right, they're going to spearhead new markets in soulular extraction processes. Gotcha. Gonna make bulk cheddar in that arena, no doubt. But then again, is GR's plan really so insane when measured against the cancerous infinite growth fantasies of predatory real world corporations?Why not soul extraction? A soul deserves better than such an imperfect vessel as the human body. In fact, you could say that putting a soul inside a custom-designed robotic body is doing God's work by building a more perfect temple for the spirit. And, now that I think about it, once the process itself is perfected and passes into the public domain, you'll probably see the birth of "organic" and "indie" soul extractors and "artisan" and "hand-crafted" robot body boutiques. I'm already looking forward to this future!

The dark arts of soul extraction, as portrayed in the movie, resemble some kind of Frankenstein meets Torquemada by way of Bush/Cheney Era torture policy and Jack Bauer kind of torture: stripped naked, Leda Nea is hooked up to wires and tubes and violently shocked. Leda flails about a padded cell (visual reference to the chamber where the Eva Unit goes berserk in Neon Genesis Evangelion), unable to dash her brains out, and thereby end her suffering, she has no choice but to have her soul removed and loaded into a robot body that's strongly reminiscent of  the sex bots from that Bjork video All Is Full of Love.

Leda Nea, in her new robot body, is isolated in an Edenic garden prison where she tries to escape and is pursued and killed by sentry robots only to be reborn as a vengeful spirit complete with Tetsuo-esque psionic powers of mass destruction. Leda Nea obliterates the city but, in an intriguing twist, she does not annihilate the technological basis of GR's city state. Rather, she seemingly heralds a new kind of life-form: bizarro serpent-angels stitched together out of robot body parts and powered by sparks of the divine essence.

Or something like that. Fragile Machine takes a turn for the apocalyptic, but instead of total destruction of the techno-order, it's more like a synthesis of spirit and robo-technology. The surreal imagery of the gravity-defying  robotic serpent-angels is something to behold as they twist their way through the clear skies above the drowned city which is now being reconstituted as a new civilization at movie's end.

Fragile Machine is a spiritual science fiction apocalypse--a fantasy of how a corrupt world ends, and a new world is born from the heart of a transcendent savior entity. The corrupt world is identified with mindless conformity, rule by transnational megacorporations, and the ruthless quantification of and experiments upon human life. Like many apocalyptic mythologies, it sets up a number of dualistic conflicts: Leda Nea is a rebellious woman opposed to the cold, oppressive masculinity of the GR scientists and their drone sentries; a lone individual battles the colonial corporate citizen; plants and animals are at war with robots and technological infrastructure; and, most importantly, the irreducible soul or spirit is portrayed as being in conflict with the pitiless, Orwellian systems of surveillance, quantification, and corporate-capitalist processes of standardization, mass production, and profit driven economies of scale.

These are all familiar themes found in many science fiction films, TV shows, comic books, animation, and literary works. What's interesting is how Fragile Machine uses these dualistic oppositions to portray a new synthesis of technology and spirit. After all, this is a computer generated movie. Although the production is quite small and independent minded, it still uses hardware and software developed by large scale corporate entities, so it is interesting that the movie's thematic progression reflects the physical means of production: a synthesis of independent moviemaking vision and corporation-derived tools results in a movie which suggests the monstrous edifice of GR may only be redeemed if it is put at the disposal of a single, autonomous soul with a transcendent vision. It's an intriguing mixture of the religious motif of apocalypse with stock elements of dystopian science fiction.

 You can also think of it as a mash-up of different tropes and visuals from different strains of science fiction: cyberpunk, dystopia, transhumanism, Asimov's Laws of Robotics, stories of robots becoming sentient, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and various anime and live action works such as Ghost in the Shell, Akira, The Matrix, Robocop, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark CityNeon Genesis Evangelion, and, of course, Metropolis and Blade Runner. The movie wears its influences on its chest, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is the kind of movie where the more you get the influences behind it the more you can get out of it, I would say. This is appropriate to the spiritual dimension of the work, as well. Think of this movie as a sermon in the church of cinema, a kind of theological commentary on various themes in the "sacred texts" of science fiction movies, TV shows, literature, comic books, and animation.

 It also incorporates the aesthetic values of CG videogames and cinema--Final Fantasy, Parasite Eve, Resident Evil, and even Xenogears all come to mind. Fragile Machine is the cinema of people who grew up with immersive videogaming experiences--people who fully recognize the artistic qualities of videogames, and derive as much satisfaction and influence from gaming narrative products as more traditionally minded filmmakers would from Kurosawa, Bergman, Ozu, Resnais, Imamura, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Leone, Kubrick, early Coppola, Scorsese, Carpenter, and/or Romero.

Fragile Machine is definitely a visual spectacle, incorporating destruction and violence, but it does not wallow in the mayhem like some movies and games do. It's digging for something deeper by attempting to articulate a spiritual/metaphysical vision that, paradoxically, seems to grow out of the advancement of seemingly non-spiritual, non-supernatural information, engineering, cybernetics, AI, and robotics technologies. The movie seems to portray the infusion of spirit into technology which results in a being which is both spiritual and technological in nature.

As a skeptic, I resist Fragile Machine's dive into the supernatural, but on a purely aesthetic level, I admired the eclectic mix of science fiction and apocalypse. I don't think the movie is meant to push some sort of religious agenda. It's a movie first and foremost, at most a sermon in the Chruch of Cinema, and a dazzling make believe story. But I would be intrigued to see Aoineko and collaborators tackle more of a hard sci-fi story that doesn't lean on the supernatural elements as much.




10 Minute Version of Fragile Machine:

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