The Sci-Fi Short Film HENRi Brings the Fire with a Tale of the Post-Post Modern Prometheus
Approximately six years after the start of its mission, the spaceship Pythagoras is drifting in space and it's human-derived artificial intelligence is ready for something new besides maintaining a ship's vessel. The crew is dead and has been for some time, enough so that dust (or the remains of the dead?) is settling and beginning to pile up noticeably. The only sentient being left is the ship itself, or, at least, the intellectual construct that serves as the ship's actual, physical brain -- the Hybrid Electronic/Neuron Responsive Intelligence, or HENRi. Left to its own devices, HENRi begins to remember its manmade history and constructs a body for itself from scraps, one that is unmistakably humanoid. Considering the only life HENRi has ever seen was human and, indeed, was itself human in the past, this makes perfect sense.
In this opening sequence of Eli Sasich's short film, which shares a name with the titular main character, it's hard not to see the scaled-down sets and the miniatureness of it all. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, though it's clear that the director is shooting models and puppets meant to look human-sized and not something closer to A Nightmare Before Christmas or the stylization of James and the Giant Peach. Despite this understandable hiccup, the process of collecting now useless bits and pieces of the Pythagoras for HENRi's new body is fun to watch, especially knowing these really are oainstakingly constructed miniature sets and models. The obvious fact of extremely hard physical labor almost always garners sympathy. Still, there's an emotional distance to the beautiful proceedings in these opening moments where execution doesn't quite exceed craft. This is undoubtedly the reason why director Sasich recommends watching HENRi with the volume way, way up. That suggestion is seconded here, as the sound design really does sell most of the, admittedly expert, puppetry.
And then HENRi comes alive.
Everything the filmmakers are going for clicks into place the moment that HENRi, given voice by 2001: A Space Odyssey's Keir Dullea, wakes up and begins exploring the ship with which he was once unified mind and body. I honestly had no idea that 90% of HENRi was computer generated before watching the Making Of documentary, but the artists at Blufire Studios have done a masterful job of bringing the character to digital life without betraying his analogue roots. The combination of CGI and in-camera sets, rather than green screen, is seamless, perfect. Once HENRi finds the corpse of the derelict ship's captain, it's clear something terrible happened onboard that only affected the human crew. In a flashback, Superman's Margot Kidder (as commanding officer Dr. Calvin, who may or may not have a deeper relationship to the man HENRi once was) gives a tragic and surprisingly affecting performance in just over a minute of screen time. Dullea himself shows up at the very end, in a wonderful cameo that both changes our understanding of HENRi and brilliantly recalls his role in Stanley Kubrick's original sentient computer classic.
But the best thing I can say about the short is that it doesn't remind me of anything else I've ever seen. While it was very easy to see the inspirations behind another recent sci-fi short -- C -- HENRi is altogether its own creation. The film and the titular hero both are clearly inspired by the DIY nature of 70s and 80s science fiction and fantasy moviemaking, which is utterly appropriate for an independent film about a A.I. that builds its own robot body, a confused monster that is also its own Dr. Frankenstein. There are definitely callbacks to Short Circuit's Johnny-Five and WALL-E's WALL-E in the character design (especially the eyes, but how else is one supposed to denote critical thinking from machines?), and yet HENRi stands apart because of his unconscious need to return to humanity. His brain is basically where his heart should be, and that symbolism foreshadows precisely why he eventually turns into a cybernetic version of Rodin's The Thinker. Sitting and thinking, while the dust continues to pile up, trying ever so hard to remember more than flashes of human memory.
And then a supernova.
HENRi is less a sci-fi flick than a lyrical poem, and I don't mean to damn it with pretentiousness. Where it was distant at the first, it becomes unexpectedly emotionally resonant by the end, enough so that choking up and shedding a tear for a fictional robot essentially signifies our own humanity. Accomplishing this task in slightly less than twenty minutes is most impressive. Sasich is trying something new by asking you to pay a price for his work, and I can understand why some might be hesitant to do so sight unseen, but HENRi is absolutely worth the $1.99 to stream for rent or the $2.99 to buy for download, or for a reasonable price on DVD/Blu-ray. You can get new releases from the Hollywood machine for the same price on iTunes or Amazon, but wouldn't you rather support a product of passion rather than just another product?
The below trailer does an particularly apt job of preparing you for the movie proper:
The Making Of is another two dollars and a third longer than the movie itself, and worth every penny and second, too. You can get a glimpse of what's in store here.