Somnio (2016) Review

[dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]omnio is an ambitious film that is only compromised by its obviously small budget. Fortunately, the filmmakers squeezed value out of every last penny to create a movie that is smart, interesting, and engaging. There are blemishes, however, like lack of chemistry between actors and sometimes confusing editing, and these flaws can feel glaring. But as a whole, the final product is an enjoyable film that manages to explore just enough of the human condition to make this story a memorable experience.

In a future that features, high tech, automated prisons and advanced artificial intelligence, the populace lives under an oppressive government that heavily surveils its citizenry. Frank Lerner (Christopher Soren Kelly) is a private citizen who intimately understands what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the law when he’s shot in the back and wakes up alone in a prison cell without due process or explanation. His only interaction is with his Life Support Operator called Howard (voiced by Jesse D. Arrow), who communicates over speakers and watches Frank via a camera in the ceiling. With fears of a violent uprising against the government as one of his last memories, Frank must find a way to escape his cell and rejoin a society that may already be destroyed.

On the surface, Somnio is a sci-fi prison break movie. As Frank pieces together his situation and explores his very limited world, audiences will no doubt begin problem solving along with him, taking note of routines and inventing creative ways to use what’s available. When new information is given, like a hidden door that reveals a new room or tire tracks that disappear into a wall, it’s fun to factor in those variables into how Frank might escape. If the film were just this, then it would still be successful, but it reaches for much more.

It’s when Somnio expands beyond the prison cell both conventionally and thematically that the film misses its mark, though no honest moviegoer could fault the filmmakers much for trying. For example, one of the conventions in the film is a machine that can tap into Frank’s mind, allowing him to experience his recent past over and over again while presumably being monitored, in order to find out what he’s hiding, if anything. This is confusing early on because much of what we learn about Frank is through flashbacks. So when the audience discovers that there is a machine in the room that can make him flashback, it’s unclear if the flashbacks are filmmaking techniques or conventions that exist within the story. Also, Frank has a personal reason for hating computers, but this isn’t really explored even though it’s ostensibly juxtaposed with a scene later in the film where Frank seems to have built a caring relationship with a computer. Frank also has flashbacks of his father on life support which parallels another scene toward the end of the film, but like the other moments that are meant to be poignant, this is understood intellectually instead of felt emotionally.

Christopher Soren Kelly is a talented actor with the ability to deliver a natural performance in an extraordinary environment and without the aid of another cast member to play off of. If there is a complaint about his acting, then it would be that there wasn’t enough time for him to truly emote. Outside of a few outbursts, Kelly’s character, Frank, rarely feels out of control, either physically or emotionally, which feels odd for a person whose entire life has been snatched away and whose ability to distinguish reality from fiction slowly erodes day by day. Also, despite the length of his incarceration, there’s little visual change in Frank. His hair isn’t long. He doesn’t have a beard. He doesn’t look any thinner or more haggard by the end of the film than he does at the beginning. This is a shame, because seeing a physical transformation for the worse would have raised the stakes emotionally by a considerable amount.

Whatever faults Somnio may have, being visually uninspired or ugly is not one of them. Despite having limited locations and small rooms to film in, the cinematographers did an admirable job in creating space and movement and interesting camera angles. There are also nice touches early on where the filmmakers match events in the Frank’s flashbacks to events and objects in his cell as a bit of foreshadowing for the blending of realities to come.

Ironically, Somnio gets better the second time it’s watched. The first time through audiences are given a lot of information, and the film doesn’t take pains to convey what is important and what isn’t. So naturally, everything gets weighted equally, which becomes a heavy ballast on the viewer’s mind as he or she waits for some detail to become relevant. But after seeing the film once, knowing all of the answers alleviates much of the burden, allowing a second viewing to take audiences to much greater heights. Fortunately, Somnio is a piece of art that intelligent film lovers will want to revisit.