Note: Spoilers for Sunspring are in this in-depth review. The video is embedded below if you want to watch before you read.
In Sunspring, director Oscar Sharp engages in a cinematic experiment. The goal: to create an award-worthy short film using a script written by an artificial intelligence. The result: glorious sci-fi chaos. Feeding the A.I. with dozens of science fiction script .txt files and a series of prompts given for a sci-fi filmmaking competition, the small cast and crew used the resulting script to shoot the short in one day.
“In a future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood,” Thomas Middleditch’s H begins, upon pulling a book out of a drawer and thumbing through it. “It’s something I could do.”
This is perhaps the most coherent line in the entire short (it was part of the contest prompts, after all), yet it is still chillingly robotic. Middleditch delivers it with his usual cadence, but the words themselves feel foreign in their callousness. The line is also strangely poetic. A dystopian world where people are forced to sell blood is a place of nightmares, but H sees it as an opportunity, his blind optimism a weird anachronism that is immediately striking.
“You should see the boy and shut up,” replies the woman he is addressing (Elisabeth Gray), who is oddly enough also dubbed H in the A.I. script. This is the first truly thought provoking concept introduced by the computer mind. Is the double naming a mere glitch in the A.I.’s programming, or is there some symbolic rhyme and reason to them being ostensibly the same person. Films don’t often have both leads bearing the same name, and the A.I. was “taught” by a series of famous (and conventional) film scripts. Does the “author” want us to believe this initial conversation is between a person and themself?
“I was the one who was going to be 100 years old,” the woman, henceforth H2, continues. Clearly, the A.I. got tripped up on the concept of age and wrote this line to counter “young people” with “100 years old.” Or…this conversation H is having with himself/herself (itself?) is a fierce internal struggle between the virility and vivacity of youth and the stability and solidarity in aging. H is not bothered by the concept of selling blood in a dystopian future, because he views it as a sign of value. His own life has worth, but it is a value only granted to the young. H2 is bothered by this sentiment, because the blood is necessary to march on into the twilight years. Blood is a commodity that H2 cannot afford to give up if she wants to guarantee a long future for herself.
Either way, they are both talking about survival. A trope found in many a sci-fi and horror script, including several films listed in the A.I.’s brain, survival is a distinctly human trait. This opening pair of lines is a deeply existential struggle inside the mind of the singular H, in which he/she/it wants both the freedom of youth and the security of a long life, where it appears that, to H, the two are mutually exclusive.
The existential crisis of H continues in the next line. After some nonsensical talk about seeing a man (possibly the third character, which will be introduced in a second) and H2 being “sent to” him, H declares that he is “not a bright light.” This is deeply existential, but it is also incredibly vague. It is a clear take on the unexpected hero becoming something bigger after living a life in which he/she considers themselves nothing more than a cog in the machine, destined to never make a large impact. Again, this is a well-trod trope of the Hollywood film. It is the first stage of the hero’s journey.
The beginning of this line, too, isn’t exactly nonsensical. If viewing the characters as all existing in their own headspace, H refers to seeing the other man, C (Humphrey Ker) in a dismissive yet agitated way, indicating that C is, at least from H’s perspective, the antagonist. And, once he comes into the scene, C doesn’t do much to dispute that viewpoint. H then refers to H2 coming into his life as a “big honest idea.” It’s not written very well, but it shows that H feels some sort of elevated connection with H2. If the characters are all distinct, this is obviously a romantic connection, thereby installing a love triangle dynamic to the film. This, too, is a convention of film that serves both to add romance to a non-romantic film and add supplemental conflict to the plot at hand.
If H and H2 are indeed one in the same, however, this line may be referring to H2’s introduction into his life as an internal conflict. H2 represents a fractured identity in H that was not previously there, and it is one that causes immense emotional distress. H2 is a “big honest idea” in that she poses a realist interpretation of things that hampers H’s otherwise optimistic viewpoint which, at the point we are dropped in on, has almost faded completely. Then, H’s realization that he is not a “bright light” is a deeply saddening one, as we now know that he used to think of himself as just that until H2 came into his life.
It is at this point in the film that C enters stage left, and this is also the point in which things turn strange. C zaps himself with something that shows his skull as he proclaims to know nothing about what the other two are talking about (of course, we know this to be false because he was eavesdropping moments earlier). We then see H spit out a glass eye out of seemingly nowhere. This comes from a parenthetical in the script reading: “to Hauk [H2], taking his eyes from his mouth.” This could be the director making literal a symbolic gesture in the script, one in which H is beginning to see things for what they really are, and now he is no longer afraid to speak on what he is observing. As for the skull thing…beats me.
H: Then what?
H2: There’s no answer.
It’s profoundly simple. In a narrative sense, H2 is saying there is no answer to H’s existential anxieties. They simply are. He won’t find any reasoning behind his personality split and loss of optimism. It’s just a part of his life now. On a more meta-textual level, it’s also fairly simple: there is no answer to this film. It simply is. It is a mashup of all the conventions that the computer could decipher and the semantics of screenwriting that it could comprehend, albeit inadequately. There is nothing profound in these computed lines, so why would anyone bother trying to analyze such a film? Well…
The remainder of this scene pretty much follows the same logic as any of the film’s viewers: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The computer apparently can realize when it has made a nonsense bit of dialogue, but it can only answer by making the next bit of dialogue a statement declaring the script’s own state of utter confusion. It’s actually fairly humorous to see play out.
The conversation at the end of the scene between H and H2 does start skewing weirdly sexual, which becomes something of a light motif in the film, as H2 comes back at the end with a vaguely sexual monologue. Where this is heightening the sexual tension between the three characters, it also shows further the disconnect between the two H identities. Sex being inherently intimate and connecting, it plays quite nicely into the idea that H and H2 are one in the same. They are the same person, but they will never live on the same wavelength. A sexual congress of the mind could reform H into a single entity, but instead H has been rejected by his other half, doomed to live in a psyche of crisis.
The A.I. screenwriter also has a fascination with using the term “boy.” It comes up in this first scene, and then recurs in the next one when the song begins and H actually faces a real clone of himself. “Boy” repeats what has already been established, that H is living in an infantile fantasy in which the power of youth is never-ending when in reality, and by definition, it is constantly coming closer to an end.
This scene is the most surreal of the film. H is first shown floating in a starry landscape that is still inside the ship they are on. A clone of him is then seen hiding under a desk. These images continue the well-established theme: H is lost in a field of vast emptiness inside his own psyche; he cowers under the desk in his mind because he is afraid of the inevitable.
The scene also breaks the fourth wall in a funny and interesting way. Essentially a dream sequence at this point, the scene is permitted to go pretty much anywhere, so it is not even jarring when H grabs the camera and pulls it closer to him, only to find it disappearing and reappearing elsewhere in a meta-commentary on the inherent mediation and fabrication of the film medium.
The internal conflict comes to a head at the end of the scene, when H takes a gun off the wall and puts it in his mouth, ready and willing to shuffle of this mortal coil in search of an existence where maybe he can be a bright light. Only, as he is about to commit suicide, a black hole opens in the floor of the ship, which leads to a roof (a roof on a spaceship?) where C is lying on the ground. In a surprising moment of narrative cohesion (cohesion not explicitly created by the A.I., but still), H pulls a bag of blood out of his backpack, crumples to the ground, and weeps. Seemingly, he gives up all hope of retaining his youthful optimism, as they are not living in a world where he can sell his blood. That world is a fantasy.
From here to the end of the short, we get H2’s monologue, weaving and rambling through a maze littered with dead ends. And yet, it all reads surprisingly cogent.
“There’s a situation with me and a light on the ship,” she begins. The light, as previously mentioned, is H, or rather, it was H. “The guy was trying to stop me.” H was trying to stop H2 from wreaking havoc on his brain, splitting it into two and causing the rampant depression that is evident in H. However, “he was like a baby,” and “he was weak.” H2 took dominance over H, whose optimism is again infantilized here. She then speaks of his impotence, emasculating him and showing again her dominance over the psyche.
If it wasn’t clear before, H2 emerges as the antagonist here, but, where many other aspects of this narrative skew toward the conventions, she is not the conventional antagonist that you would expect. She is controlling and destructive, shattering H and taking control of the brain that they share. She smiles through the whole monologue, laughing at his weakness. But she is also in pain. She can “go home and be so bad” but she also loved him. They are one in the same, and breaking off such a large piece of her own identity in his destruction is a painful move, even if she did it by choice.
“I’m going to see him when he gets to me” is an interesting line, one of the last in the film. If this film is a battle between identities in one brain, as I have posited, then this line is hard to decipher. Seemingly, H2 has overthrown both H and C on her way to power. She is the only one left, then, yet he is going to get to her. She isn’t saying that once she moves on (after living to be 100, apparently), she will find H on the other side of the void. Instead, she is the one in the void. She is the one standing in the starry emptiness. Brute cynicism, then, does not prevail as she intended. She is a tragic figure in this regard: she has received everything she wanted, but she will never be happy; she will always be alone.
Sunspring, as a narrative, is a dark existential tragedy that is given a strange tone given the script’s humorous inability to fully grasp the language. As an experiment, it is a fascinating look into how automated cinema really is. The film, as written by a computer given access to other film scripts of well-known movies, falls into conventional rabbit holes whenever it gets the chance. It might be harder to notice these conventions underneath the dialogue that doesn’t form full conversations, but they are still there. It presents an offbeat indictment of the Hollywood system, in which movies created with cookie cutter formulas can still make money and become well-known without presenting anything original.
What’s the takeaway from this indictment? In my opinion, it is that any aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter out there shouldn’t take in films like a machine and spit out similar things as a result. Film should be studied with a careful eye, and a strong writer will learn from this when and where conventional narrative tropes should be used or abandoned. The computer here went down strange, incoherent paths that have the artifice of originality because it doesn’t know any better. Programmed with basic story structure, it didn’t know how to tell a story. It could repeat certain things it found in the .txt files, but it didn’t know how to structure and build a story world.
I had some fun breaking this film down, but none of my thematic analysis was the computer’s intent. Our interpretations can project meanings where they don’t exist. However, it would be interesting to see where A.I. technology progresses from this point in terms of creative endeavors.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)