J.J. Johnson, Lauren Emery
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
In writer/director Wil Magness's 29-minute sci-fi short film The Manual, James (J.J. Johnson) is the last human on earth, having been cared for since childhood by a humanoid robot known only as Machine (Lauren Emery). We initially meet James as a small child, he and his parents struggling to survive in their post-apocalyptic cabin set in wooded isolation. Tasked with ensuring that James remains safe, Machine essentially functions as parent in guiding James toward adulthood utilizing a composite religion described in a handheld device called The Manual.
You could be forgiven for having flashbacks to Denzel Washington's The Book of Eli long about the time The Manual shows up, though rest assured that Magness is working on an entirely different plane here. The Manual's teachings weave together elements of traditional biblical teachings alongside a view of robots seen as spiritual beings in an afterlife where humanity and robots peacefully co-exist as equals.
As James ages, his search for other surviving humans intensifies. As the search for other surviving humans becomes increasingly futile, James becomes enveloped by loneliness and depression. His faith in The Manual increasingly shaken, James sets out to test one if its core tenets and discovers an almost unfathomable truth.
Despite the inherent challenges of working on a low budget short, The Manual is effective both as a sci-fi short and for its emotionally resonant storytelling. The role of James is performed ably from childhood on, though there's no question that it's J.J. Johnson's meaty, complex journey into loneliness bordering on madness that gives The Manual its thought-provoking and soulful impact. Johnson's entire physical being communicates a lifetime build-up of searching and doubt, surviving primarily because it's the only real thing he's been taught to do.
As Machine, Lauren Emery is also a quiet revelation. Tasked with portraying this humanoid robot that is programmed as a caretaker yet seemingly lacking in the substance and foundation underneath that caregiving, Emery's vocal work is simply outstanding and her body language hints at a seemingly impossible maternal presence. There are times when you're sitting there watching Machine's eyes and you'd simply swear you see a spark, a glimmer, and even a tear. It's a tremendous performance that is complemented by Kevin Fletcher's top notch lensing work and Nate Smith's impressive production design. Mary Beers's stellar costume design also deserves kudos along with Kerry J. Smith's impressive, atmospheric original music.
The Manual has already found quite a bit of success on the film festival circuit including a premiere at the Rome International Film Festival in Georgia and a handful of awards, including the Best Short Film and Audience Choice Award, at the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival.
For more information on The Manual, visit the film's website linked to in the credits and watch for it at a festival near you.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic