"Somnio" bills itself as an "indie sci-fi psychological thriller," and to that apt description we might also add "Kafkaesque puzzler, with a dash of prison-break." While writer/director Travis Milloy's film is not without flaws, it's entertaining and gripping, imaginatively repurposing good old sci-fi formulas such as "man struggles with grip on reality" and "man forced to relive a moment." It can be quite funny, as well.
In the near future, Frank (Christopher Soren Kelly) stands in a coffee shop admiring a photograph of alpine trees as armed men creep up behind him and blast him with stun guns. When he awakens, he's locked in a steel chamber. His only companion is Howard, an affable disembodied voice regarding him, HAL-like, through the unblinking lens of a periscope in the ceiling. One wall of his cell is dominated by some kind of turbine; this turns out to be a dream-scanner, emitting a hypnotic pulse. Collapsed in an armchair, he dreams of the morning of his arrest. Waking in his bed in his apartment and peering out through the blinds, he observes a drone-filled sky. The news reports there's a resistance on against a repressive techno-regime, yet most people go about their day-to-day lives. Before he goes out, we see him pocket a mysterious key-shaped zip drive. Shadowed on the street by shadowy men, he slips into the coffee shop, where he's blasted again.
Awake again, Frank demands Howard name his crime. Howard blithely replies that there is no charge. Infuriatingly, Howard can only repeat that he is just doing his job as jailer, which is (1) to hold Frank until he's processed; and (2) to keep him alive. Howard is casual, even flip, and their banter becomes a kick. Howard says he's Frank's "life support system," though being imprisoned is not "life" in any meaningful sense of the word. They discuss Frank's bitterness towards the role of computers in human life, ever since one kept his father, dying of heart disease, hanging on for years after the man was ready to go.
Frank begins to suspect he was arrested because the bio-scanner on the cash register at the coffee shop mistook him for a leader of the resistance. Now, the techno-overseers are probing his unconscious with the dream-scanner, as if examining an instant replay of that day in hopes the playback will reveal resistance secrets. The memory of the coffee shop begins to take on the characteristics of a lucid dream. As he spends more time there, Frank falls in love with the barista, Gabby (Cassandra Clark), even though she's really just a peripheral figure in his memory. Playing a dream girl, literally, Clark brings humanity and a nice sense of irony to a tricky role. (She may only be an undigested bit of his subconscious, but she has her own ideas.) Together, they begin plotting his real-world escape from the cell, though it means leaving her behind and, for all he knows, returning to a world obliterated by war.
We begin to notice visual and aural rhymes between the elements of Frank's cell and the coffee shop/apartment. Milloy rhymes the blades of overhead fans across various levels of reality in particularly pleasing ways. Similarly, the shiny, convex top of a coffee urn recalls Howard's bulbous lens. The metallic pinging of a spoon on a coffee mug echoes Frank's tapping at a grate in his cell. Even the roles of Gabby and Howard begin to conflate.
Paranoia strikes deep in "Somnio." Its near-future vision of everyday life as a palimpsest bearing police-state fingerprints feels rather nearer than we'd like. The themes of surveillance and detention evoke the Patriot Act, CIA "black prisons," Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. Out of sight and out of mind, these play out even as we go about our day-to-day lives. Fittingly, Milloy knows how to find the eerie in the everyday--a coffee shop, a convenience store.
Christopher Soren Kelly gives a poignant, urgent, witty performance as Frank, a haunted man piecing together fractured shards of time, memory, and dream. He gives the picture soul. The pleasure of working out the puzzle with him made "Somnio" a movie I wanted to revisit, though it has a few problems: the editing conveys Frank's confusion, but occasionally provokes the same in us. The picture could be charged with mixing formulas (a bit of "The Machinist" here, a dash of "Inception" and "The Matrix" there, stir with a bit of "Moon"), but for my money it's found a way to ring a kind of chamber version on the themes of its influences in a way that's just as resonant, at a fraction of the cost. "Somnio" may be relatively short on special effects budget, but it's long on ideas and imagination.
I am advised that, screening as a rough cut, "Somnio," won "Best Screenplay" at the Boston Science-Fiction Film Festival and "Audience Favorite" at Fantastic Cinema Film Festival in Little Rock. The completed version also screened at Sci-Fi-London. The filmmakers hope to secure distribution in mid-July. See below for further information.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)