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‘Trouble Thinking Clearly’ – Cognition (Short Film Review)

3 min read

Cognition is an ambitious attempt to expand the scope of what you would normally expect from a short film. This is a genre often filled with small-scale stories, but this twenty-seven-minute featurette is anything but. It seeks to worm its way to the very core of its protagonist's mind, charting his traumatic reaction as he is forced to confront his actions as a kidnapped and brainwashed child who becomes an agent of the evil Vega empire. It attempts to expand the horizons beyond Earth, hinting at a vast universe rife for exploring.

Initially, the film shows great promise. A Bond-esque, eerie title sequence showcases a vast empire made up of towering angular edifices and robotic implants that root the film fully into the sci-fi dystopian genre. These visuals are impressive, and this effects work spills over into the film as we arrive on Vega. A vast alien savannah stretches out before us, a galaxy of far-off planets above just waiting to be explored. What snapshots we do get of the wider universe are truly impressive, especially for a short film, although some later shots look comparatively less real than the earlier work. We also get glimpses of some of the alien technology and weaponry that populate the universe, but these become increasingly generic as the film wears on. The costumes also cheapen the visual achievement, as it evokes practically every other science fiction movie you have already seen.

One of Cognition's biggest selling points is that its soundtrack has been performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Samuel Karl Bohn's music can only be described as cinematic, evoking Hans Zimmer's soundscapes to punctuate the alien world before us. However, I felt that the score was sometimes intrusive. Its grandiose power was ever-present, enveloping the film and refusing to allow it to breathe at any point. I cannot help but feel that some moments would have been better without the BBC concert orchestra backing them up. As the adage goes, sometimes less is more.

Leads Andrew Scott and Milo Panni have great chemistry together as father and son, chemistry which is drawn on as the emotional core of the film in its closing moments. It is a shame that our protagonist, an adult Abner (played by Jeremy Irvine) is given comparatively little to do. His initial muted delivery works well to evoke his passivity as a brainwashed agent of the Vega empire; as he breaks free from his conditioning, he becomes less compelling. His only major moment is a melodramatic, muted scream that strives for emotional gut-punch, but felt almost parodic on-screen. Otherwise, he is stone-faced and practically mute for the majority of the film.

The attempt to render a collapsing psyche is mainly accomplished through on-screen work which is effective, but at times feels over-produced. This is rendered through skipping frames and interrupting the soundscape, which is jarring but effective. Later, the screen around Abner thrums and warps with cognitive energy as Irvine stumbles between shots, clutching at his head. Far more effective are the scenes which place Abner within or alongside the shadows of his former life in the same frame, visually connecting him with his past.

The long corridors of the Grade II-listed Battersea Power Station become the pathways of Abner's own mind, as he (literally) chases the memory of his younger self to the heart of his trauma. This a simpler metaphor than the film promises, but it nevertheless works effectively. The layers collapse in on one another not unlike the revolving camera in The Manchurian Candidate's garden club scene, with mise-en-scene slowly giving way to one of the Vega's youth conditioning facilities.

As a short film, Cognition is highly ambitious. The array of visual effects and frenetic soundscape suggests a noisy, sprawling alien universe out there, but this is nevertheless a small-scale trauma narrative that just happens to take place out in the cosmos. As his first written feature, Chopra's short film exhibits great promise and a chance to build on an otherwise very ambiguous sci-fi world. There are more exciting questions to be asked about the world that Cognition takes place in. The ambition is therefore admirable, even if this film does fall somewhat short of what it wants to do.


Scr: Ravi Ajit Chopra, Gavin McClenaghan

Cast: Andrew Scott, Jeremy Irvine, Milo Panni, Wolf Kahler, Lucy Russell, Georgia Sandle

Prd: Ravi Ajit Chopra

DOP: Simon Rowling

Country: UK

Year: 2020

Run time: 27 minutes

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