Directed by: Wil Magness
Starring: JJ Johnson and Lauren Emery
Short Film Review by: Niall Maggs
The Manual is set in the distant future in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic America. Deep in the woods lives the last human on earth: James, played terrifically by JJ Johnson. James is raised by a humanoid robot known as the Machine (Lauren Emery) after his parents die. We see James' development and growth through a great span of time while being lectured - by the Machine - on a mysterious religion described in a handheld device called The Manual. The Manual's teachings include the idea of afterlife and reincarnation, and a world where robots are spiritual beings and are equal to humans.
The Manual succeeds in granting the audience with ambiguity and mystery, while also questioning what it means to be alive. This is seen where James realises who he is and what he's made from. He compares himself to an animal as he discovers he's built from the same things. This idea seems inspired by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner - and that's not a bad thing! This homage to the sci-fi classic is seen almost throughout in other aspects such as the cinematography and the bleak colour palette which further adds to the apocalyptic setting. The drab feel given off from the short film is immersive and sucks you up like you're there alongside James and the Machine. There are some shots which are simply breathtaking due to Kevin Fletcher's awesome cinematography, and the way these shots are constructed with such precision and care works phenomenally with the deep and important subject matter discussed and displayed in The Manual.
JJ Johnson's performance as James is powerful and emotional. His extensive passion is shown in just how he handles certain situations and scenarios. His depiction is realistic and unforgettable; it's one of the many things that played on my mind after the credits started to roll and the screen turned black. We slowly see him delve into depression and descend into madness as his search for other humans proves unsuccessful, and the way Johnson conveys this is nothing short of masterful.
The final five minutes becomes slightly muddled and overly confusing, which is where the short film falls down. It tries to become too clever and trades in understanding for puzzlement. This doesn't pay off well because you're left confused and bewildered. This was a bad decision on Magness' part because it simply fails to work, which is why it doesn't quite get a perfect rating, but overall, Magness' directing is excellent.
The Manual succeeds at many things such as the stellar acting, subject matter and stunning cinematography and would work brilliantly as a feature-length science fiction film.