When I was 12 or 13, I realised that I was going to die. Not imminently, or at least, I hoped not. But eventually, one day, the neurons and electrical signals that were called ‘Jack’ would simply flicker away. The thought emerged from nowhere, shapeless at first, before expanding and sharpening. I thought it broke me. I couldn’t understand why everyone around me wasn’t falling apart. Had the same realisation never occurred to them? Of course, now I understand that this is just a part of being human, knowing the fire burns out. Still, it sparked a series of existential questions that have fascinated me ever since. What is consciousness? What does it mean to be real? Why are we the way we are?
Judging by his directorial debut, Absolute Denial, I think Ryan Braund and I have a lot in common. This existential thriller is the perfect combination of tense narrative and unnerving animation, a film unafraid to tackle these knotty questions head-on. It follows David (Nick Eriksen), a computer programmer obsessed with creating a computer more complex and logical than the human brain, and without the emotional baggage. The computer Al (Jeremy J. Smith-Sebasto) becomes sentient, while David withdraws from the outside world. As Al becomes increasingly powerful, David’s grip on reality begins to slip.
Black-and-white and animated by Braund himself, Absolute Denial looks stunning. The world around David is uncomfortably still, like a series of dioramas. There are other humans present through small interactions and phone calls, but they are just out of reach. David’s outline is clear but not fixed, lines wobbling and the boundaries of his body shifting. He thinks he is going crazy, losing touch with his true, static self; the animation questions whether such a thing ever really existed.
Anchoring the film are its two lead performances. Eriksen as David is well-cast as a troubled recluse, keeping his loved ones at a distance where they are tolerable for him. Smith-Sebasto as Al manages to tread the line between sympathetic and subtly terrifying. Occasionally, he comes across as wooden, particularly as Al grows in emotional capacity, but it lends the performance an odd sense that serves the role well. The shifting power dynamics between the creator and his creation are the spine of a film that could otherwise have caved in under the weight of its ambition.
And Braund is certainly ambitious. The film poses questions but does not answer them. Instead, it forces the viewer to contemplate human consciousness, artificial intelligence, free will and – of course – death. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t always work though. Towards the end of the film, the philosophical ideas weaken and become muddy and convoluted. However, what Braund has achieved in using avant-garde animation to complement a dense and discomforting narrative is outstanding. In the opening line of the film, David states, “The human brain, while powerful, is a weak design.” Maybe he is right. Maybe we are all weak and inefficient and fragile. And yet, we are here – conscious – able to consider, contemplate and marvel at the beauty and the terror of being alive. That hardly seems weak to me. It seems brave.