The latest project from Nanoflix Productions is a full-length feature film that uses the AG Engine, the latest in a computerized animation process, widely called Machinima, to bring to life what has been hailed as a film-noir-esque, science fiction. This “future-noir” mystery, set on, and in, a lonely asteroid in deep space, weaves a tense tale and stars self-aware (artificially intelligent) robots. They mine the ice the asteroid is made of and convert it to hydrogen and oxygen to refuel ships that stop at the outpost. The movie is a unique project that shows so much promise, with top quality voice work (voice direction by Jackie Turnure) and a Vangelis-style soundtrack (composed by Phillip Johnston), but, as a whole, tends to fall short in too many ways.
The opening credits roll over mundane visuals of a spacecraft making initial landing procedures (possibly an obscure nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey) and activating the lone robot attached to it’s underside. Quickly it becomes apparent that the graphics are not the glitzy, well polished animation that people have become accustomed to in recent cinematic projects. Think slightly pre-Tron, if you will. The story gets into a dark, film noir feel from the very first lines with the slightly monotone but gritty voice of Chris Jones (voice of the popular Tex Murphy, from the computer games of the same name), as Pi the investigator, dictating events and thoughts to his non-sentient assistant, Com Bot Beta. Pi establishes himself as the wary and intelligent representative of the ominous and ambiguous “Company.” After accessing the facility and reviving Kieru (voiced by Claudia Black from Stargate SG-1 and Farscape), the director of the outpost, Pi quickly learns that information is hard to find when there’s no trust to be found anywhere.
The story progresses in fits and starts, with very little movement while dialogue is occuring. This seems to be intentionally to introduce you to the environment, which tends to be a minimalists wet dream. It could be due to the fact that it’s really nothing more than a giant ball of ice with a series of tunnels cut through it but small, apparently inconsequential visual details, tend to only add to the confusion (including one machine with the words “super sex” stenciled on the side). There are complex, non-thinking machines, that the sentient robots operate, interspersed around the facility. Pi is informed that one of the most important machines, the main crane, now damaged, was operated by a bot named Faraday, who is nowhere to be found and presumed “dead.” Faraday’s disappearance is what Pi has been sent to investigate.
In short order most of the inhabitants are reactivated and it becomes clear that all of them have a collective secret to hide. As the mystery begins to unravel the viewer is expected to empathize with the characters. However, this is exceedingly difficult in the beginning and the character interaction and dialogue just never seem to reach that goal. The ever looming “Company” is mentioned, and the fact that the robots owe the company their very existence, but not much else about it is ever really explained. It tends to be nothing more than the merest shadow of an enigma. There are also allusions to robots “defecting” but, other than a vaguely talked about desire that all sentient robots seem to have to live a “Stolen Life,” nothing is ever explained about life outside the asteroid. In fact, not much about their existence is explained beyond what is only necessary to provide clues to create and then solve the mystery.
The interesting animation process, for which Stolen Life has been nominated for several Machinima Awards, is a little uncomfortable at first (especially for die-hard gamers), but it just doesn’t seem to be able to overcome what could have been a far more engaging story. When one stares at the same thing long enough it’s possible to lose perspective. Flaws aren’t quite as noticeable. What seems obvious to those seeing it for the first time may not be quite as apparent to someone who has seen it a hundred times. That appears to be what happened with this movie. In the telling the writer/director, Peter Rasmussen, must have explained to himself and his associates many things about the characters and their motivations but somehow never manages to vocalize those things to his audience.
Some would say that a movie that makes you think and leaves you asking questions is good. While that may be true there’s a big difference between retrospection and just plain confusion. The voices and soundtrack are spectacular but the melodrama, typically provided in film noir by clever lighting and extreme close-ups of over-the-top facial expressions, are quite obviously lacking. Eventually the sparsely detailed visuals just don’t seem to make up for holes in the story and dialogue that may leave you feeling just a little less than completely satisfied.
Jacqueline Turnure (director) / Peter Rasmussen (screenplay)
CAST: Claudia Black … Kieru (voice)
Chris Jones … Pi (voice)
Marty Murphy … Doc/Assistant/Cutter (voice)
Rachel King … Daisy (voice)
Lech Mackiewicz … Faraday (voice)