Robot Love: Android Elli (Lena Watson) in ‘The Trouble With Being Born’.
THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN ***1/2 (94 minutes) R18+
The promise of the near-future and all the comforts and joys its science and technology might bring has never gotten much of a shake in cinema, which has traditionally applied Murphy’s Law to any attempt by humans to take a step forward.
That pattern doesn’t change with the dystopian vision conjured by The Trouble With Being Born, a singularly disturbing, deceptively subdued, haunting science-fiction drama of ideas designed to provide unsettling food for thought about the human desire to replicate intimacy with technology.
The film, co-written and directed with lyrical understatement by Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner, presents a future world we’ve often seen where androids have become a common part of daily life, programmed to please their owners without question.
In the case of Georg (Dominik Warta) we have a middle-aged man living a secluded life on a large, wooded property with his android Elli (Lena Watson), who resembles the pre-pubescent daughter he lost a decade earlier.
The machine’s elfin, waxen features evoke the sensation of the “uncanny valley”, wherein an artificial being’s close resemblance to a human heightens amplifies its artificiality and strangeness. To us, anyway. For Georg it’s close enough to the real thing.
Appearing sentient, the android interacts with Georg and its environment in an everyday manner, creating the sense that all is normal. Aspects of Georg’s behaviour, however, suggest that all is anything but.
Through the use of stillness and some evocative cinematography (by Timm Kröger) Wollner allows us room to ponder precisely how Georg relates to his robot, though there are moments strongly implying that what he does with Elli is not appropriate – or would not be appropriate if the machine was, instead, a human.
The confronting issues and questions this scenario raises wrestles with the notion of how technology can be used by people to create their own moral universe. Georg is alone with a machine designed to do as it is programmed – so do society’s morals still apply?
Wisely, Wollner allows such ideas to percolate across the story without forcing an interpretation. The film’s exploration of the relationship between people and the machines that are supposed to improve their lives is left open, the scenario a modest extrapolation of contemporary reality.
Whether machines can make up for life’s shortfalls is further examined in the film’s second stanza where Elli becomes the property of an elderly woman (Ingrid Burkhard). Her son, having acquired the android through happenstance, has hacked into Elli’s programming to try and provide his aged mother with the comforting memory of a lost loved one. It doesn’t go well.
By any fair measure, the thoughtfulness and artistry of The Trouble With Being Born earns its place in the pantheon of quality science-fiction films that have dealt with the issue of artificial people.
These include: Metropolis (1928); Blade Runner; Alien(s) (1979, 1986); I, Robot (2004); Bicentennial Man (1999); D.A.R.Y.L. (1985); Ex Machina (2014); and A.I..
Still, The Trouble With Being Born became the subject of some controversy when it was withdrawn from the schedule of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival.
This was in response to the opinions of two forensic psychologists who feared the film could promote “sexual interest in children” and be used by perverts as pornography.
One expert had not seen the film. The other had only seen a bit of it.
Australia is the only place where such action was taken against the film and, ironically, it is the first country to distribute The Trouble With Being Born beyond the festival circuit.
Rather than be pushed onto the back foot by the objections to the film, director Sandra Wollner has pushed back, identifying “clickbait” culture as a factor.
She was grand enough to speak via Skype about the genesis of the film, its themes, meanings and ideas about how humans relate to technology as psychological mirrors. She also addresses the MIFF controversy in full and the logical flaws in the rationale used in pulling the film.