If the modern American experience spells gun violence, universal concerns of morality, racial tensions, police brutality, and our mechanistic overtaking by the futurist cyborgs of crime solving and privacy invasion, then Lorraine Nicholson’s short film, On Killer Robots, delivers a sentient bull’s eye for a day in this twisted life. Sure, bullets fly, blood bubbles and babbles, profanities hail, prayers wail, and all of us are asked if we’d push the button. But On Killer Robots does more than substantiate the anxiety that we live in a fragile environment of differing gods and mortal bods: it reminds us that violence and entertainment are American bedfellows whose chemistry and origins are inexplicably ouroboric. Or perhaps ou- robot-ic, depending whom you’d ask, and how far down the rabbit hole this country is willing to go.
“In real life, I self-identify as a people pleaser,” Nicholson tells me over chrysanthemum tea at a cafe in Hollywood, in response to a question about her responsibility as an artist as it relates to her choices of subject matter (her previous effort, Life Boat, dealt in attempted suicide, abuse, and the corroded educational systems of this country), “so I am always surprised to find that I gravitate towards divisive material. Ultimately, my goal is to make films that leave the audience questioning their own preconceived notions. This can be uncomfortable for some.”
Discomfort is no doubt a product of the On Killer Robots viewing experience. Police are dead. Protestors clash around a stand-off between the hot-headed suspects and the dead policeman’s colleagues. The sound design is gripping, the camera elegantly anxious. But Nicholson is right. The circumstances she’s created are not conventionally lopsided. They’re complicated, and our own position on any one theme extolled herein is as safe as any of the onlookers within range of the high-powered rifles poised atop the anonymous city street.
I ask Nicholson about the suspension of causality when creating scenes of violence and violent tension. Does this process distance you from violence, rather than pull you closer? “In most films of this genre,” she considers, “violence happens with such regularity that it resonates with neither the characters in the film nor the people who are watching. I wanted to change this dynamic by portraying violence as having serious consequences.”
Consequences indeed abound: kill or be killed, hide or be brave, surrender or stand your ground. But the layers at play are given density with the intrusion of a robot with an explosive arm attachment controlled by the tactical police force outside the building that houses the suspected murderers, which slowly makes its way, trepidatiously human-like, through the elevators and corridors of the abandoned high-rise. Nicholson considers the consequences of technology here when I point out that only the younger generation police squad can operate the robot, and therefore act as the agents of its murder mission. “The complex part about the push towards automation,” she says, “is that the generation in power, compared to their younger counterparts, has very little knowledge of these machines. As much as our patriarch wants to control the situation, he doesn’t have the skills.”
And so the good versus evil paradigm has been triangulated. Machines are capable of killing, but they’re also capable of saving lives, and thus we consider the operator. As anyone will attest, though, this agency over the machine is incrementally losing its grip. During a mounting scene in Nicholson’s 14-minute short, the robot hits a speed bump of sorts and topples to the floor, rendered momentarily useless. I ask the director about the metaphoric implications here. “As the film progresses,” she considers, “the robot becomes more and more of a character until it controls the narrative completely.” Here, though, is where Nicholson embraces the cinematic context, the quintessential interconnectedness of our emotional centers, be they bound in tissues and organs or spread over a circuit board—that ourobouric spell we call living in America. “Like all good characters,” she says cooly, finishing her tea, “the robot must have flaws.”
Written by Matthew Bedard