Like Walt Disney, Judge Adam Arseneau plans to cryogenically freeze his head. Hopefully this will be done after he dies.
Citizen Kane in the 23rd century.
Holding the Guinness World Record for first feature film shot entirely against a green screen without any sets (beating out big-budgeted rivals like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), Able Edwards is an ambitious little film. Grown out of DIY ethics, pushing home-computing processing power to the limit, and created with a minimum of funding as a labor of love, it hit the festival circuit and impressed many industry types with its originality and impressive presentation. Among them was Steven Soderbergh, who signed on as executive producer and landed the film its chance at distribution.
Facts of the Case
In the 23rd century, the Edwards Corporation is having a crisis of management. A hugely successful media conglomerate and robot manufacturer, the company's roots stretch back to the 1970s, when a young entrepreneur named Able Edwards took his hand-drawn creatures and built amusement parks and animated children's films that entertained the world. Now hundreds of years later, the company is stagnant, flatlining, and out of ideas.
A brilliant idea is conceived: bring back Able Edwards, the mad genius. At his death, his body was preserved cryogenically. The Edwards Corporation decides to take a sample of his tissue and create a genetic clone of Edwards, grow him up the old-fashioned way, and get him to run the company, hoping to jump-start the company, if only through the publicity alone!
The Able Edwards clone (Scott Kelly Galbreath, Lady Magdalene's) takes the reins of the company (once old enough, of course) and immediately shakes things up, firing people left and right, and putting all the investment of the company into creating an amusement park, of all things. The investors think Edwards is crazy. In the future, all entertainment is virtual—nobody would pay money to actually "sit" on a ride, when they can just simulate the experience!
But Edwards knows how artificial and hollow being "simulated" feels. He wrestles with his own identity in the shadow of a great man, realizing that he has spent his whole life being the "original" Able Edwards, and has never had the opportunity to live his own life…
One could call Able Edwards "retro sci-fi," if such a genre was actually established. Borrowing elements from recent science fiction tropes and mixing in Golden Age Hollywood mythology, Able Edwards creates a funky yet familiar setting—think Gattaca set at Disneyland. The character of Able Edwards is an erstwhile send-up on the Walt Disney mythos, with riffs on persistent rumors of his cryogenically preserved head (stored for posterity, mind you) mashed into the plot of Citizen Kane. The hybrid is executed well, with sufficient tongue-in-cheek irony. ItÂ's a unique premise to be sure, but the joke may be lost on people unfamiliar with the history of Disney (the man) or the work of Orson Welles.
Able Edwards is a film enthralled with the magic of Disneyland, of the excited mad genius buying up orange groves with fantastic delusions of a "magic kingdom." Refusing to listen to criticism, Edwards brings the futuristic world back into the world of "reality entertainment," a step back into the past away from video games, simulated realities, and virtual entertainment. In doing so, the Edwards clone tries to reconcile his own artificialness, of being nothing but an imitation of the original product. It is ironic that Able Edwards as a film feels so artificial and lifeless.
The film tries with genuine enthusiasm to warm to its subject matter, but the end result is stiff, awkward, and ungainly. In a scant 85 minutes, the film tries to cram in two entire lives—those of the original Edwards and his cryogenic clone—and ends up skimming. Citizen Kane made us care about Kane slowly, deliberately—we may not have liked him much, but we knew him. Edwards, despite being in virtually every shot of Able Edwards, feels like a stranger, cold and unknowable, as the film leapfrogs ahead by decades at a time. The result is fairly jumbled and soulless, amplified by actors miming out their roles in front of a green screen.
Yes, the acting is downright preposterous, but this is to be expected—most of the cast and crew are either friends or green rookie actors working for free. The real problem is the total lack of organic interaction between characters. Everyone acts like department store mannequins come to life, plastic and motionless, standing utterly still in virtually every scene, reciting lines and staring into the empty void of an entirely CGI-rendered landscape. There is no sense of dimension, no depth—everything feels and looks flat. It utterly decimates any sense of realism or dramatic attachment to its characters.
That being said, there is much to appreciate in Able Edwards. I enjoyed the novelty and irony of the film, seeing its layers of homage and parody, its examinations of notions of originality and reproduction, of individuality and fate. The Edwards clone is created for a task—to be the original product brought to life—but soon finds himself exploring his own desires, his own ideas. He is a unique man unto himself. The notion of an entirely "virtual" world suddenly becoming enamored with the real is a brilliant notion, one that does find fruition in the film's vision. It must be similar to how children first reacted to seeing Disneyland for the first time, of seeing a fantastic wonderland unlike anything on Earth before. With Able Edwards, the opposite is true—mankind has been so accustomed to the artificial, to the simulated that the very notion of a "real" amusement ride made of steel thrills people.
The truly impressive feat in Able Edwards is not the special effectery, but that an entire film can be computer-generated in one's bedroom for the price of a moderate automobile. The entire film was shot in a small dingy room on green screen for a mere $30,000, an unheard-of amount for such a visually splendid film. Granted, the effects are nowhere near Hollywood levels, but considering Able Edwards was created for the equivalent value of one week worth of catering of a Hollywood film, props are due. The style and art direction in and of itself is hilariously camp, as if the Epcot Center's "Future World" exhibit came to life. Robertson, an experienced Hollywood set dresser (Serenity) acts as writer, director, and editor for Able Edwards, bringing an incredible world to life with almost no frills.
As for the DVD itself, Able Edwards does not look as good as you might expect an all-digital production to look, but bear in mind that much of the appearance of the film is intentionally stylized to look vintage and dated. The high contrast black-and-white picture expresses solid black levels and sharp detail, but the image is so incredibly grainy that it distracts the eye horribly. It looks like static from a detuned television is running in the background at all times. I am certain this is a deliberate choice, and it certainly gives the film a unique appearance. Plus, it no doubt conceals the digital trickery somewhat. Still, it just feels wrong—especially in non-anamorphic letterbox. The horror…
A simple stereo presentation is all we get, and it does the job. The audio breaks the illusion of the production values somewhat—muted dialogue, distortion, and occasional high-end noise provide telltale signs that the film was shot on shoestrings, at odds of the visual splendor on screen. The score is a string and piano melodramatic accompaniment that swells the film, an impressive composition for a low-budget film.
For a single disc release, a decent amount of supplementary material is included. The primary feature, a commentary with director Graham Robertson and producer Scott Bailey takes us into detail about the conception of the film, how to convince a movie crew to work for free, and exactly how cheap it can be for two men can create a movie on the home computer. Both Scott and Graham are eager, open, and talkative, and very proud of their project, making for a great track.
A ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette goes on set with the cast and crew for a glimpse into making a green screen film. After seeing the film, going into the green room and seeing how Able Edwards came together is quite impressive. Also included are some green screen reveals and production notes, both of which illustrate exactly how impressive an illusion the filmmakers have managed to craft. A theatrical trailer rounds things out. All in all, I'd say a good offering.
A piddling point, but the menu navigation is far too slow—it shouldn't take over a minute for me to get to the extra features section. I also would have liked to see some subtitles.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not much more to say, really. As a tech demo, Able Edwards is sufficiently impressive, but as a film, Able Edwards feels painfully rough and unpolished, like a first draft. With so much attention given to the creation of an entire digital world and landscape, the film itself is fairly lifeless and limp, neither dramatic nor funny. It just kind of sits there benignly, looking shiny and gray, but never entertaining in any way.
This is a surprisingly tough film to pass judgment upon. Able Edwards may be a bit of a snore, but it definitely shows what a few talented people, a small budget, and a computer can pull off these days—incredible things indeed! Kudos on the creativity and ingenuity that went into the production, but as a film, Able Edwards feels half-thawed.
Nifty eye candy to be sure, but this court fears Able Edwards offers little for anyone other than bit-heads and tech nerds.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Heretic Films
• Commentary with Director Graham Robertson and Producer Scott Bailey
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