Directed by Adam Nelson
Written by Xènia Puiggrós
Starring Graham Cawte and Francesca Burgoyne
Cinematography by Dagmar Scheibenreif
Editing by Cleo Alexandra Ford Wilson Original Score by Imraan Husain
Short Film Review by Euan Franklin
Emotional Motor Unit is set in a mysterious, totalitarian future where the air is poisonous to breathe, where humanoid robots exist, and where people are dependent on drugs to suppress undesirable emotions. We follow a middle-aged Writer (Graham Cawte), employed by a Big Brother-like organisation referred to as ‘The Company’. Bearing similarities to Winston Smith, the Writer completes various assignments for the Company such as composing pamphlets and writing character biographies. His next task is to write a novel, but, given his lack of life experience, he is hesitant to accept. To adjust the issue, the Company supplies an Emotional Motor Unit (E. M. U.) – a special robot designed as a human woman. Its purpose is to provide the Writer with life experience, thus enabling him to write the book.
The film juggles many heavy concepts in such a short time. It is normally unadvisable to make a short film with a story, or even a setting, with so much baggage. As well as a dystopian society, we also have the presence of artificial intelligence – both are essential to the story. If the balance wasn’t right, the film would’ve collapsed into expositional mayhem. On the contrary, despite being only her second short film, Xènia Puiggrós crafts her story with the intelligence and maturity of a more experienced writer. The film doesn’t bloat us with too much information about the dystopian society, but rather allows the character to lead us into this world – instead of the world leading him. Admittedly, there is some superfluous world-explaining that could’ve been snipped here and there, but most of it felt essential to the story.
Puiggrós’s writing is well-supported by Dagmar Scheibenreif’s bleak and beautiful cinematography. The emphasis on white and grey captures the mechanical atmosphere, as well as the loneliness of the repressed Writer. Whenever colour enters the frame, it is a significant event. The only recurring colour is that belonging to the Writer’s emotion-suppressing pills – his only pleasure in a colourless world.
The performances are difficult to judge. There was a clear motive from director Adam Nelson for Cawte to deliver his lines robotically, reflecting the Writer’s automated obedience to the Company. It also sets up the E. M. U. as a contrast to the Writer’s suppressed emotions: the robot appears more human than actual humans. Despite these careful considerations, there are times when Cawte’s performance feels too robotic and could easily be mistaken for mediocrity – particularly when working alongside the superior talent of Francesca Burgoyne. Burgoyne delivers a standout performance as the E. M. U.: not only convincing us of her true robotic identity, but also of her counterfeit humanity.
Emotional Motor Unit is an immersive and unsettling short. It is mysterious without needing to be too revealing, emphasised by Imraan Husain’s beautiful score. Loneliness resolved with technology recalls comparisons with Spike Jonze’s Her, although Nelson’s vision seems far more sombre and pessimistic. You consider the future, and morbid questions begin to surface: Will our environment turn against us? Will humans have their emotions drowned away? Will robots become more human than humans? Maybe I can ask Siri…