second-guessing slate’s sci-fi shorts selections, day 2

Today I continue my critique of Slate.com’s 2012 sci-fi shorts with Memorize. You might want to check out yesterday’s post on Archetype if you haven’t already. Spoiler warning again, if you can say that discussing a seven-minute film embedded in the very page you’re reading is “spoiling” it.

Memorize‘s first mistake is that it subscribes to the theory that in the future, everyone will look like a model. It’s a look so prevalent in sci-fi that it’s a kind of convention, and you could just be chalk it up to the filmmakers’ desire to make the future look slammin’. But while stylization like this has its merits, it’s hard to justify from a story perspective, and in a drama like this, it probably detracts from the sense of visceral grittiness that we are probably looking for, especially in this sort of noir-ish dystopia.

It’s not so easy to explain away Memorize‘s continuity and staging issues. Start with the sequence beginning around 1:35: The investigator is walking down a hall in pursuit of a woman (hair and make-up ready for a night of clubbing) that appears some 30 feet in front of him, gun blazing. She’s gotten the drop on him but she can’t seem to hit him, apparently because he has cleverly decided to step out of the way of her volley. This would be problematic in itself, yet more troubling is how both of them have a strange lack of urgency to their movements; you don’t really believe the threat because they don’t seem to, either.

As she runs up a flight of stairs, she drops two grenades after her, right into his path. The resulting explosion rises up the stairwell, burning the special agent to a crisp. Right? Nope. In the next cut, he’s casually ascending the stairs, and we haven’t even gotten a shot of him jumping for cover. C’mon, throw us a (sleek, leather-clad) bone here.

And then there’s the shot of a pool game suddenly interrupted by the gun battle raging one floor below. Why are these guys so surprised that there are bullets popping through their table when they’ve just heard 217 blasts of gunfire from downstairs? Or is that just another Tuesday morning in their building, which looks like it is about to be torn down anyway?

Anyway, the law-enforcement-type character we’re following finally catches his prey using a straight-up rip-off of the hologram trick from the original Total Recall. Now we get a second look at the technology he’s using to read memories, and it’s really disappointing. As the investigator puts the reader to the back of the suspect’s skull, a holographic screen pops up, and displays the message “SUSPECTED CRIME_MURDER.” (That’s the future for you: black-on-black outfits are in, colons are out.)

The device display and interface feel like a pro forma gesture suggesting the use of fancy tech without evoking at all the way computers or technical instruments actually feel when you use them. This is the same problem as with so many cop procedurals, where computer monitors flash messages in enormous fonts in the center of the screen. Yes, it keeps the audience oriented in a blunt way, but man does it feel fake, not to mention reminiscent of first-person shooters that are painfully explicit about what is happening at any given time in the game. It’s a cheap evasion of the challenge all screenwriters face, which is to explain to the audience what’s occurring even though nobody in the story would normally need to verbalize it. Whatever the solution to the problem is, this ain’t it.

I could go on. The driving scene looks terribly staged, and then the guy shows up at a destination that looks like a warehouse without any neighbors, even though the location — shown on a map with a blinking dot, natch — was clearly in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Finally, and worst of all, the same gimmicky hologram trick is used at least two more times in a short that barely reaches seven minutes.

Putting the actual execution of this short aside, I’m skeptical that this memory-chip technology could effectively dramatize a psychological or social issue. On first pass, it seems like an easy way to address civil liberties: Do you have a right to your own memories? Can they be subpoenaed? And yet, that issue seems closed before it’s even approached, since clearly nobody wants the government rooting around in their heads like this. Maybe there’s a way to probe this issue in a compelling way, but this film hasn’t found it.

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