Artificially Intelligent is about as short as short films get, at a mere three minutes long. It steps in, introduces its near-future science-fiction concept, shows it in action, and then steps out, a job well done. In that time, it manages to be humorous, smart, and calibrated. The set-up is simple: we are in a social-media drenched near-future in which something akin to the Google Glass has become a regular tool, which people gladly use in conversation, often without others noticing, especially when trying to sound more intelligent than they already are, and especially when they’re trying to impress potential romantic partners.
Director Ben Lister films the one-scene short simply, with actors front-and-centre. Sitting down for a chat with him, the first thought for us was to ask if the production was as simple as it looks: “that was the house I was living in at the time. I knew all the actors, all the actors were friends, the DP had his own camera…it was a case of a few phone calls really. I remember writing the script and I had my friends in mind for the parts. I paid them with pizza and alcohol! It was simple and fun, we shot it in four or five hours, we kind of rehearsed a little bit and just went for it; we did a lot of improv.”
Making films with his friends since he was 11, he has thus far made a mixture of comedy shorts, music videos, and the occasionally slightly longer, bigger-budgeted short. “I’m not very strategic, I don’t really have any plans to get the film into festivals, I just enjoy doing it really. Having said all that, my dream is to make independent feature films in Britain.”
With Artificially Intelligent being pointedly a satire about our ever-increasing dependency on technology, it bears similarities with Spike Jonze’s Her or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror TV series, albeit nowhere near as morose. “My film is more just a slice of what life might be like. I’m quite interested in technology; we’re all looking at our phones now all the time, it’s become the norm that you can just look at your phone during a conversation or at any time now. The big companies are now thinking about getting rid of that and making it wearable, and so Google had the Google Glass, which as it turns out now didn’t take off. I still think that will happen at some point. So I just went with that and wondered "Ooh I wonder how that will affect say, a dinner party, trying to chat up a girl," and then I thought it’d be fun if there were two guys competing against each other and one guy’s got a better version. [Smartphones] have already changed me, for example in terms of my memory; my memory’s rubbish now, I rely on my smartphone.”
He’s not the only one; more and more studies have come out showing that smartphones are affecting our cognitive abilities. The ubiquity of sat-nav navigation, for example has been shown to make people worse at navigating.
One of the other points that Artificially Intelligent touches upon is the possibility of people using the information they’ve gained from technology as a substitute for a personality; “yeah, we all try and be pretentious in front a girl, to try and be as intellectual as we can. Sometimes I’ve had conversations with people and it sounds as if they’re just repeating things they’ve read on the internet, not putting any of their own opinion or their own criticism into it. That’s happening more and will happen more, especially with something like these glasses.”
Of course, the characters in Artificially Intelligent are discussing James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, long held as one of those lauded pieces of difficult literature that few people have actually read. With the two warring men evidently having no idea of its actual content, only the woman in the middle seems to have an idea of the novel. Has her character actually read it? “She’s one of those people who’s probably only read the bits you need to read, or read a book about it.”
Ben Lister’s simple style and sound concepts should bear him well in the future, especially if he hopes to carry on making small independent films. “Ideally I’m working towards making my first feature but I would shoot it myself. I’ve been really inspired by films like Blue Ruin [Jeremy Saulnier, 2013], Monsters [Gareth Edwards, 2010], Victoria [Sebastian Schipper, 2015].”
Certainly, those films make for fine blueprints; all independent films made with small budgets that made the most of their meagre resources to tell exciting, interesting new stories in a variety of genres. As long as Ben Lister doesn’t replace his personality with a Google Glass, there may be more interesting things to come.