The term uncanny valley describes the disquieting experience that arises when something looks and feels almost human but still somehow falls short. Ordinarily, we use it to describe humanoid robots and computer-generated images that attempt and fail to approximate the real thing. The new short science-fiction film “Uncanny Valley” inverts that equation, examining the emotional consequences of a world in which humans become more like robots and computer graphics.
In the opening scenes, we’re introduced to a group of near-future virtual-reality addicts who spend their entire lives in an ultra-immersive violent video game. At times, this story wavers on the blink of cliché, most of all for its hyperbolic embrace of widely contested tropes about the evils of video games. But as Cory Doctorow writes on BoingBoing, the story takes an altogether different turn by the end.* The total effect is impressive: No less an eminence than cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson praised the film on Twitter, describing it as Kubrickian:
I highly recommend you watch the short Uncanny Valley. Like excellent short science fiction, with "studio" production values. #GarageKubrick— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) December 15, 2015
Though the larger themes of “Uncanny Valley” may be a bit broad, its small details make it stand out. Note, for example, how it eschews the typical visual trappings of fictional VR, such as those comically bulky visors that have been in evidence at least since 1992’s Lawnmower Man. Here, the addicts instead insert small, semicircular clips into their nostrils before descending into their digital dreamlands. It’s a subtle choice that manages to convey both the otherness of the film’s future and its continuity with our own present.
More generally, the visual effects are frequently gorgeous and sometimes ingenious, capturing that overlap of virtual and real familiar to anyone who’s spent too many hours playing a game. It’s exciting to imagine what writer-director Paul Wenninger might do with a larger budget and a more expansive narrative format. For now, at least, he’s produced a work in the tradition of the best SF short stories, one that’s both imaginative and thought provoking.
*Correction, Dec. 16, 2015: This post originally misspelled Cory Doctorow’s last name.