Review: ‘AIDOL’ is the spawn-point of a new cinematic age, for better or worse

“Farsight. Aligning AI with Human Interests.”

How does one describe Lawrence Lek’s AIDOL

Thankfully, there’s no need, since Static Vision — the local collective behind the upcoming Hyperlinks festival in NSW — has done the job for us. “A uniquely digital musical that’s Perfect Blue by way of machinima” simultaneously prepares audiences for exactly what to expect and casts them out into the unknown, desperately scrambling to make sense of what’s going on. 

For those unaware, a machinima, in layman’s terms, is an animation created through the engine of a video game. Filmmakers manipulate various mechanics (and bugs!) to tell a story, capture action, and generally recreate the experience of watching any cinematic production through the graphics of whichever computer-game they have chosen as their lens. Red Vs Blue (2003 – present), for instance — the longest running episodic web series of all time — remains the most popular of the form, telling its 17-season narrative across various installments of the Halo franchise. 

AIDOL takes this conceit and slaps it onto A Star is Born (1937) for the digital age, but even then, that’s a disservice to the project’s sheer originality. Lek’s exhibition is comparable to scavenging through a box of old VHS cassettes as a kid (before finding one with a pretty nifty cover) and being completely blindsided when you put it on the telly. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s truly something new. 

Set against the 2065 Olympic esports final, AIDOL follows fading superstar Diva who enlists the help of Geo, an ambitious AI songwriter, to help mount a comeback performance. Structurally separated into ‘tracks’ which Lek wrote for the film — playing as songs Diva and Geo have created — story and character are ultimately pushed aside for a journey through dazzling techno synths and worlds far distant from our own. As an avid fan of the genre, the musical numbers in AIDOL were the most alluring moments of the entire film, capturing both an algorithmic confinement in a post-AI world and a yearning to break through and stay original, if such a concept can even exist. 

We’ve seen stories like these tackled time and time again; a notable comparative point is the Black Mirror episode Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (2019), which sees a form of advanced AI technology create music under Ashley O’s name (played by Miley Cyrus), while the real pop star lies in a comatose state. While this example — and a large majority of these stories about entertainment industries through digital frameworks — paint AI as an imposing threat, Lek does something substantially unique in AIDOL. Geo is the Garland/Gaga of this story; hopeful, aspiring, and filled with swirling artistic potential. However, their goal is forever under pressure due to the rising tensions between the Bios (humans) and the Synths (artificial intelligence) which play out behind the scenes of the esports tournament. 

As much as I cherish musicals and understand the concepts and processes of machinima (fun fact: I shot & presented one when I was in Year 9 and the final product is somehow, thankfully, lost forever…), AIDOL still made for a dense and difficult work with which to truly engage. I wholly concede that it’s not something for me, because outside of the dazzling musical sequences, I found little to connect with in Lek’s first feature-length film. The concepts and themes explored are fascinating on paper, but the visual accompaniments are ultimately aimless the more time is spent with them. Characters meander through locations, relying on the ravishing colours and textures of various worlds rather than basic interactions and spatial coverage to command the narrative forward. It’s very much a visual poem with PS2 graphics, recurrently hopping between the captivating and tedium. 

For those who instantaneously connect with this niche — which I imagine to be surprisingly  populated — I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending AIDOL, as I’m sure the experience will be an utterly transformative one. The Hyperlinks festival is imperative moving forward for not only spotlighting stories about our digital world, but by screening films that embed these ideas deep into their form. I truly hope that Lawrence Lek’s exhibition films propel more machinimas in the future and more brazenly unique works about our monopolistic industries, because there’s something earnestly confounding about seeing these types of stories told within the stratosphere of pre-existing digital worlds. Despite how I felt, it enhances every beat of stirring commentary, and is just what we need in the new decade. 

AIDOL will be playing on 22 February as part of the Hyperlinks festival.

Visit the Hyperlinks site for more info. 

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George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @geekap42

George Kapaklis

George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @GeorgeKapaklis.