“Muse” (2020) by Azhur Saleem and (April 13, 2021 at DUST, 12:33 min) “An artist turns to his android muse for help when trying to sell his newest paintings, but events take a dark and disturbing turn when the android learns what has inspired the work.”
An artist welcomes in an art gallery owner to view his latest offerings, his in-house android at his beck and call. When the meeting turns sour and the guest tries to leave, Alderman calls on Kay and… So begins the next day. When police officers come knocking regarding an altercation outside, it transpires that Alderman has amended Kay’s CPU to respond to un-programmed demands – including murder to which she complies and the police officers are disposed of. As Kay becomes self-aware she turns on her owner and creates a painting in his honour – a painting of pain. The muse becomes the puppet- master.
Review: The director took the unusual step of providing us with a synopsis of the story, while avoiding true spoilers. That was a good idea. Many sci-fi shorts are baffling because there isn’t enough time to explain an unfamiliar scenario. A cheat sheet enables the viewer to focus on how it’s portrayed, as opposed to trying to make sense of what happened.
Muse is a sci-fi riff on a millennia-old theme of the artist whose creation comes to life — except that Kay is an android, not a statue, and Alderman, the artist did not make her.
Taj Atwal does a great job as the android Kay who becomes just human enough to look at a painting and realize something about the figure it portrays… Paul Ready also does a fine job as Alderman, whose mind is exposed by his horrific paintings.
The film raises two issues: One is that the relationship between the artist and the increasingly human-like android Kay is an owner-slave relationship. The police officers ask the artist to produce her “papers,” for example. But, of course, if the android could really be like a human — as some AI pundits predict — just using her as a tool wouldn’t be ethical. So why do it?
Second, Kay’s gradual acquisition of human-like traits includes self-awareness, in terms of recognizing her own face (under uniquely awful circumstances).
In animal psychology studies, this sort of self-recognition is known as the “mirror test” (the ability to recognize one’s own image in a mirror). But it’s less clear what it means with animals than with humans. A fish, the cleaner wrasse, has passed the test but gorillas have failed, a fact which casts doubt on the use of the test as a marker of self-awareness in life forms other than humans.
It might have been possible for an android that is not conscious to recognize its face — if programmed to do so. Kay begins to acquire self-awareness without programming as she “humanizes” (becomes conscious). Good science fiction raises these kinds of questions.
Other reviews from the “We are but DUST” short sci-fi film files, sorted by length of film:
Five minutes or less
Sci-fi Saturday: What if the future does not include smarter people? Comic scenes would dot the aerial landscape, dispelling the usual earnestness of sci-fi films. A brief sci-fi diversion like “Floaters” (4 min) reminds us that cluelessness is not a problem we can just solve or should even try to.
Sci-fi Saturday: “This planet is not in our co-ordinates.” (3 min) A space courier crew gets a surprise when delivering a mysterious machine to a strange planet. One could almost see something like “McPherson’s Toys” happening, as an office gag, but 500 years from now.
Sci-fi Saturday: What if an old man could see his mother again? (4:02 min) “Bygone” is a hard film to watch if you lost a loved one recently, but worthwhile. The old man is paying to use his own memories, retrieved via neuroscience imaging.
Sci Fi Saturday: Can video games save a lone survivor? (3:51 min) “High Score” features fine animations of apocalyptic scenes of post-civilization. The “game” that turns out to be an existential struggle usually benefits from a longer treatment but the animation is well imagined.
Sci-fi Saturday film: Rescuing lost people. (5:41 min) Animated, in French, with English subtitles, but don’t let that deter you. The professional relationships in “Protocole Sandwich” sound pretty real and make it worth the watch. The animation is very good.
Ten minutes or less
Sci-fi Saturday: When “The Workplace” is anything but (9:32 min) The short film starts with a woman reassuring herself, unsettlingly, “I AM the boss.” This sci-fi short will appeal to many who have had a job at the corner of Rat and Race and sense that’s a blessing compared to the alternative.
Sci-Fi Saturday: When virtual friends are a real addiction (5:31) Animated short “Best Friends” begins with the thirtieth birthday party of a rather glum young man. As is the way with addicts, our hero cannot use his futurist fix for loneliness responsibly and ends up doing desperate things.
Sci-Fi Saturday: Watch what you wish for. There IS a tomorrow! (5:01) Carl, a lonely guy, is determined to proceed through the warning and try the Luvsik procedure, to make him fall in love at first sight. The short film features strong performances by Momo Dione and Samantha Lester, and the surprise ending avoids cliché.
Sci-Fi Saturday: We have met the aliens and they are… comb jellies. (8:15 min) The alien life form, when it appears in “Seedling,” is very well imagined. Definitely watch it for the sense of isolation when our technology bubble evaporates and for the “comb jelly” space alien.
Sci-fi Saturday: The disabled robot vet in “A Robot Is a Robot” gets a job grooming cats. (5:49 min) Definitely worth your five minutes, in part in order to see what cartoonists can do in sci-fi with animated stills. In a research paper, Max Planck scientists recently concluded that it is not possible to hobble the danger from intelligent AI. This film offers a good illustration.
Sci-fi Saturday: A girl with kinetic powers faces a choice. (5:06 min) Should she help relatives with activities she knows to be wrong? “Kinetic” is well executed but it breaks a fundamental rule of science fiction: There must be a clear science basis for the story premise.
Sci Fi Saturday: A fight for the winning ticket (7:35 min) In “Here comes Frieda,” in a 2040 superstorm, engulfing the planet, a young woman gets hold of a ticket out. But does the way out really exist? Or is she just hanging on and clinging to a fragile hope?
Sci Fi Saturday: What if there were serious wars over clouds? (9:41 min) In a world that still has technology but is desperately short of water, such wars could happen. The short sci-fi film “Oceanmaker” features pirates who steal precious water from the clouds and a pilot who challenges them.
Sci Fi Saturday: “Kiko”: A great short but key questions unanswered A lonely retail service robot longs for a world beyond her store. (9:21 min) An agreeable short but it never addresses the question of how Charlie acquired a robot that would “want” something different from its programming.
Fifteen minutes or less
Sci-fi Saturday: What if a new start in life were two pills away? (14:23 min) Would you feel the same about suicide? In “Cam Girl,” a woman whose life is going nowhere, largely by her own choice, learns what it means to be genuinely desperate.
Sci-fi Saturday: In a world run by robots, a bot becomes a joker (13:12 min) The dull, dystopian atmosphere of an Australia dominated by robots, portrayed in “System Error,” is well done and worth the watch. The story prompted this viewer to consider what thoughts a robot simply couldn’t have without some kind of input from consciousness — always the Hard Problem.
Sci-fi Saturday: Can an alternative universe save a lonely girl? (14:05 min) A girl finds fighting space aliens easier than fighting a brain haemorrhage and a sense of guilt. CARONTE ends as it must — not happily but inevitably, and with at least some sense of redemption.
Sci-fi Saturday: A future where dreams have been privatized (14:26 min) Unfortunately, the dream Carlos wants in “I Dream” is to see his missing family again and that’s illegal … More dystopia than science fiction but the post-5G surveillance environment amid mass poverty and oppression is well imagined.
Sci-fi Saturday: What if sweet sleep were a distant memory? (14:51 min) In a world going mad in “Don’t Forget To Remember” and dying from insomnia, a young woman may have a cure. The big challenge in writing about insomnia is not to be a cure for it. From the harrowing opening scene on, this film certainly clears that bar.
Sci-fi Saturday: An asteroid lingers near Earth and devours time (13:23 min) Or, at any rate, it devours our perception of time, as one man discovers in “Flyby.” As the asteroid Chrono-7 hazes Earth, a man wakes up in the morning to find that he is living in his future, one he had never imagined.
Sci-fi Saturday: In “This Time Away,” a robot helps an old fellow rediscover life (13:24 min) The robot is very well done and how he gets a name is charming. Lots of people abandon their elderly relatives, of course, so finding a helpful robot in the back yard is a pleasant fantasy.
Sci Fi Saturday: Terrified by a Scrap Monster (11:09 min) Well, if you have never been terrified by a Scrap Monster, as in “Pinki.” you are clearly missing out. It’s fun watching a middle class South Korean business executive try to cope with the Scrap Monster. Perhaps an allegory of our big environment issues.
Sci-fi Saturday: What if next-stage evolution children appear? (13:44 min) “Vikaari,” a sci-fi short from Sri Lanka looks at the possibilities. The story is very well done as a parable of the social risks of continuous internal warfare.
Sci-Fi Saturday: Can parents get back a dead child as an android? (14:10 min) In “Article 19-42,” they aren’t even united in their grief; they just think they must “do something” to get back a facsimile of what they remember. They have no philosophical or spiritual resources to fall back on in order to avoid this dead end.
Sci-Fi Saturday film: The robot tries to learn about grief (13:37) In “Rewind,” an elderly woman buys a robot to help her when she finds herself all alone, due to tragedy. Investigating the woman’s unhappiness, the robot discovers more than it was, perhaps, intended to know.
Sci-Fi Saturday film: “Speed of Time” at DUST (12:19 min): A computer nerd writing a pizza delivery program discovers that his work is way more important than he, or anyone, thought. Imagine what happens when an accomplished ground warrior busts in from another time on a quiet family at the breakfast table…
Twenty minutes or less
Sci-fi Saturday: When terraforming Mars means “Mars”-forming people. (19:14 min) In this award-winner, the underground humans must, according to the terraforming colony’s rules, deny emotion, which pretty much guarantees a story. The “New Mars” colony embodies a contradiction: The alleged better world created by “science and logic” can’t accommodate the nature of humans.
Sci Fi Saturday: Can a Robot Find a Better Planet Than Earth? (19:31 min) The trouble is, the robot in “Avarya” is governed by Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics. After 55 habitable planets, the—by then very old—fellow is beginning to suspect something about the robot’s judgment…
Sci-Fi Saturday film: “Alone” at DUST. (18:49 min) Space engineer Kaya Torres, the only survivor of a black hole, contacts an “interstellar penpal” to keep her company until she dies. She manages a desperate escape but then experiences one of the astonishing implications of time travel.
Twenty-five minutes or less
Sci-fi Saturday: “Limbo” profiles a futurist approach to punishment (24:21). The convict must live in a vision, induced during a coma, as the victim (or bereft loved one), in an attempt to rehabilitate him by teaching empathy. For one innocent convict, it’s a nightmare of incomprehensible suffering, from which friends stage a rescue attempt.
Sci-fi Saturday: Can we live in more than the present moment? (24:42 min) When a tech entrepreneur succeeds with time travel, he gets trapped in his own past errors. In “Container,” the time traveler is locked inside his lab and can only get out by repeated, dangerous efforts to go back in time to when the door is unlocked.
Sci-Fi Saturday film: “The Beacon” (25:10 min) at DUST. Refreshingly realistic, especially the harrowing Arctic encounter where the grieving husband finds out what really happened. Not to be missed is Mark’s encounter with the bureaucrat from hell.
Forty minutes or less
Sci-fi Saturday: “The Big Nothing” melds sci-fi and whodunit in a taut drama. (37:54) The combination of the sci-fi and detective genres takes some skill to pull off but this Australian crew succeeds. Arriving at a mining station near Saturn, Detective Lennox must interview three suspects in the captain’s murder. All have motives. Who is lying?