Directed by: #JohnBabu
Written by: #JohnBabu
The InTEXTigator is an experimental sci-fi thriller, written and directed by John Babu. In a near future or parallel present, the Toronto police have developed ‘Sherlock’, an AI tool that investigates cold cases by reconstructing traces of forgotten smartphone data. The film takes place within the boundaries of a text interview between Sherlock and Liz Brown (Sofia Mattine) as the tool attempts to piece together the events that led to the death of her husband years earlier. The idea is that the viewer watches the film in portrait mode on their own phone, locked into the vantage point of Mrs Brown, who acts in part as an audience surrogate.
Largely The InTEXTigator uses its chosen stage well, revealing how emotional frictions are changed by the media they’re enacted through. Sherlock is a black box; processing words and images, pixel by pixel, in a way that we never fully understand. Frequently, his forensic reasoning is at odds with Mrs Brown’s anxious, eager-to-please demeanour, the phone’s artificial pings and whooshes providing the spectral soundtrack to the exchange. A kind of viciousness bubbles perennially beneath the surface, borne not of any deliberate antagonism, but because of a lacuna in understanding that neither character is able to bridge.
The film is a medley of carefully planted details, many of which are interesting - but none of which quite makes up for its lack of a flesh and blood performance. Though bookended with glimpses of its lead, the story is told almost entirely through text messages. The technique is doubtlessly intended to erode the borders between audience and character, but it eventually wedges them further apart. Our inability to see or hear Mrs Brown bars us from her emotionally, and with this the stakes are lost, for we know and care so little about the person designed to bind us to story.
Moreover, any interrogation of the ethics of using tools like Sherlock is truncated by an ending that seems to imply it is in our interest, even safety, that we do so. It is not wrong per se to lead us here, but it feels out of kilter with what precedes it, such that it kicks you out of the moment and its place within the emotional tapestry of the narrative.
I’m not sure that the conclusion the film reaches is one it means to, but the lack of clarity and intention in the storytelling are an issue, regardless. It’s disappointing, because the idea the film presents is an interesting one (and fearfully not remotely far-fetched; all it would require is harnessing the surveillance capabilities a smartphone already has).
As our lives are further permeated by digital tools, organised so that the maximum amount of profitable data can be extracted from us, it is exciting to see a film that wants to examine the cost, particularly in so ambitious a way as this one. But in the end The InTEXTigator becomes overly fixated on its chosen method of storytelling, more concerned with the granular elements of its design than what the sum of their parts might look like.