by Rebecca M. Alvin
For eternity, we’ve all learned the major conflicts in literature (and theater and film) are man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. But more and more, the conflict that has come to the fore is man vs. technology. In Logan Kibens’ new feature film, the use of technology is not celebrated, as it is in our culture at large; it is seen as the cause of a fundamental change in human relationships that we need to be careful how we manage.
In Operator, Joe (Martin Starr) works for a company designing an IVR (interactive voice response) product similar to the iPhone’s Siri or the autobot that speaks to you when you call your credit card company, but far more intuitive and responsive to the emotions of the user. The idea is for this product to be used by a health insurance company to answer incoming calls efficiently, accurately, and with an attention to the emotional needs of people who are often calling while in the midst of a healthcare crisis. Joe’s girlfriend Emily (Mae Whitman) works at the front desk of a hotel and has a knack for taking care of customers’ needs and complaints without escalating their frustration the way IVRs often do. This is just her day job; by night she is a member of the Neo-Futurists, a performance group that uses their own personal issues and histories in creating unique live shows for their audiences. Because of her nurturing abilities, Joe hires her to help his company train the new IVR, which eventually becomes so much like her it even keeps her name in the final version.
Working together, Emily finds herself being replaced by IVR Emily as Joe becomes more and more obsessed with creating the perfect companion through this robotic voice system. Between that and his complete lack of support for Emily’s creative life, the two become estranged in this drama for the millennial era.
Kibens garners solid, moving performances from her cast, and the film tackles the intersection of the personal and the technological in unique ways. There are some inconsistencies in the script, however, that point to an uncertainty in her point of view. For example, while the film makes clear that its characters suffer from an over-reliance on technology, when a character in a straight romantic relationship promptly decides she’s gay after completing a computer poll that tells her so, the film itself is complicit in accepting her new found sexuality as though computers can indeed tell us more about who we are than our own behaviors and impulses do.
Uncertainty aside, Operator, which was created through the prestigious Sundance Institute Feature Film Program and Fund and premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this year, is a wonderful conversation starter about not only the pitfalls of artificial intelligence and technology in general, but also about the unprecedented changes in human relationships to technology and to each other. It prompts us to ask, what do we want from technology, what can it provide, and what do we lose in this Faustian bargain?
Operator is screening as part of the Women’s Week programming at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., daily through October 16. Screenings are 7:30 p.m. nightly except Wednesday and Friday, when it screens at 5:15 p.m. For more information call 508.487.3456 or visit watersedgecinema.org.