“Some things, Howard, are not meant to be computerized.”
This quote from Somnio‘s central character, Frank Learner, strikes at the heart of one of the film’s core questions. In a world increasingly reliant on technology, how much of our society should we trust to be handled by computers?
Somnio centers around the aforementioned Frank, who wakes up in a futuristic cell with only the surprisingly charismatic, yet exceedingly unhelpful A.I., Howard, to keep him company. Jumping into the film, I did not anticipate to enjoy the relationship between these two characters as much as I did. The dialogue and banter between Frank and Howard is not only fluid, natural, and interesting, but it is at times quite comical as well.
As Frank begins to piece together where exactly he his and why, we learn that in Frank’s time (a possible near future to our own), the government relies on a machine-operated criminal justice system. Within this system, prisoners must undergo “processing,” which means continuously reliving their crime through their own subconscious until evidence of criminality (or the specific information that is being sought after) is found.
Through Frank’s reimagining of the day he was arrested, we are given glimpses into his world. This seemingly not-too-distant future is populated with drones regularly flying overhead, increased automation and convenience, biological identification scanners, and a national power struggle between an overbearing governmental regime and a resistance group known only as the ‘Alliance.’ We learn all of this through Frank’s subconscious, as the film’s direction splices scenes of Frank’s memories/reimagining with images of his conscious self in his cell. The film’s title, Somnio, is Latin, referring to a dream or a daydream, which is fitting as Frank’s ‘processing’ feels as if it falls somewhere in-between a daydream and lucid sleep.
The film as a whole is a well-crafted, intelligent, slow-burn psychological thriller/science-fiction piece. Somnio has been compared to Duncan Jones’ films, Moon and Source Code – a comparison that I find quite apt in not only tone but intellect as well. However, I would also argue that Somnio has the legs to stand on its own without comparison. The plot, while interesting and engaging, serves more as a means to allow the film to meditate on, and explore, the questions and themes which it raises. Throughout the film, we see not only Frank, but Howard the A.I. and Gabby (a barista from Frank’s subconscious, with whom he interacted before he was arrested), grapple with their own identities, questioning who they really are and what parts they play in the grander scheme of the spheres they each occupy. With that, we also learn about Frank’s reluctance to trust computers which presses us as the audience to question and examine how much trust we place in technology throughout our own day-to-day lives.
I have been eager to watch this film since I first heard of its idea. I posted back in 2013 about my excitement for this project, as well as my desire to see more from Somnio‘s writer/director Travis Milloy. Milloy also wrote the criminally under-
appreciated Pandorum, starring Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. Somnio is a much different film than Pandorum, however they are alike in exploring themes of identity and isolation. Whereas Pandorum looked at these themes through a sci-fi/horror lens, Somnio is a much more introspective and quiet film. As a lower-budget, independent film, Somnio does well with what it has. The two leads, Christopher Soren Kelly and Cassandra Clark give great performances and show good chemistry in the small, intimate settings that make up the movie, and Jesse D. Arrow stands out as well, bringing a sense of charm, wit and even tragedy, to the A.I., Howard.
Somnio won best screenplay at the 2016 Boston SciFi Film Festival, the Audience Award for Favorite Feature Film at the Fantastic Cinema Festival in Little Rock, AK, and was well received at the SciFi London Film Festival (as evident from this review from Lauren Burgess from HeyUGuys).