What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to feel alive? And how do our own emotions affect our creative process? These are the centre points of discussion in Adam Nelson’s short E.M.U Emotional Motor Unit which delves into the very concept of self identity and companionship. The film is set in a bleak, Orwellian totalitarian future where the air is poisonous to breathe, where humanoid robots exist, and where people are dependent on drugs to suppress undesirable emotions (a daring critique on our dependence of antidepressants).
We follow a middle-aged Writer (Graham Cawte), who has been employed by a Big Brother-like organisation referred to as ‘The Company’ to write a novel to entertain the masses. Known only as the Writer, he is a drone that completes various assignments for the Company such as composing pamphlets and writing character biographies. The Writer lacks the life experience to write a novel and is apprehensive to accept the new assignment, but The Company have a way to combat the situation and supply an Emotional Motor Unit (E. M. U.) – a special robot designed as a human woman played by (Francesca Burgoyne). Its purpose is to provide the Writer with life experience, thus enabling him to write the book, but will he be able to cope with the rush of emotions?
The film’s screenwriter Xènia Puiggrós manages to create a clever, moving film which seems to be bigger than it’s runtime, and it seems striking and original in a way that I haven’t seen for a long time. The world that Puiggrós and Nelson has created seems very well developed and constructed, with the dystopia being steeped in realism and depth. The world seems to be a hyper reality of the bleak world we find ourselves in, and this is perhaps an alarming warning of what may come.
It is also worth mentioning Dagmar Scheibenreif’s cinematography which seems to capture the vast, loneliness of the world in which the Writer inhabits through the effective use of long shots, however when E.M.U becomes a part of his life, the frame becomes tighter and there is far more use of close-ups which reflect the relationship between the Writer and the robot. Colour is also used to great effect with the only recurring bright colours being shown in the form of the emotion-suppressing pills, shown in ominous glass jars, a shocking distinction between the bleak surrounding that the writer inhabits.
Cawte presents the Writer as a repressed individual who seems shut off from the world and deliver his lines in a robotic manner which reflect his lack of free will an his obedience to the Company. As the film progresses he become less robotic in his behaviour and becomes more animated. In contrast to Cawte’s performance, Burgoyne as E. M. U. appears more human than actual humans that we encounter throughout the film, which seems very reminiscent to the performance of Haley Joel Osment in A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001). The interactions between Cawte and Burogoyne seem very real and moving, representing the complexities of human relationship and how people help us become creative and inspire us.
Emotional Motor Unit is a short film which pulls us into an immersive and well developed world. It is mysterious and cryptic,without being too distracting and off putting. Accompanied by Imraan Husain’s beautiful score which seems almost haunting the film captures the fear of loneliness and despair. Nelson draws on influences such as Blade Runner (1982) and Her (2013) and pays homage to them in a form of appreciation and respect.
Personally, I would love to see director Adam Nelson turn this short into a full length feature, as I would love to see this world and these characters in more depth. Like many good shorts I have watched I found myself eager to experience more of the world that Nelson and writer Xènia Puiggrós had created and that’s the sign of a good film.
You can watch E.M.U here: