In the delightfully titled Doppelbänger, directed by Sofian Khan and making its international premiere at Fantasia Fest 2020, everyone has robotic doubles of themselves. These robotic doubles can be immensely helpful in freeing up time for other activities, whether for profit or for pleasure. George (Gibson Frazier) is a writer who seems to spend most of his time brooding and agonizing over words in his apartment, while a “Doppelsynth” robot version of himself, George 2, goes to work in a monotonous job. The Doppelsynths work jobs in all sectors of society, including sex work — and tensions arise when George hires a sex worker doppelganger who starts glitching and breaks down during their intimate session.
George panics and calls the robot’s original owner and double (Annapurna Siriram), and she is decidedly displeased to hear from this random man. Just as George is nothing like his stiff and formal George 2, she is not necessarily like her double — where the robot double was submissive to please the clients, she is argumentative and strong-willed. What unfolds for this unlikely pair is a short late-night misadventure, as the two try their best to fix the glitching robot and handle the obvious awkwardness of the whole ordeal.
The film is shot in darkly lit black and white, which gives everything a retro-futurist feel, as if we are watching a vision of the future tinged by The Twilight Zone and old-school science fiction movies. The color palette and shadowy lighting also gives this world a certain bleakness to it — there are no glistening gadgets or shiny chrome in this future. Yet there are brief interludes of brightness and color — such as a hallucinatory sequence unfolding in the mind of George’s double as he charges and dreams of light, which suggests these robots have some capacity for consciousness or some glimmer of humanity. The woman George meets is a doppel programmer (or was, before she was replaced by machines), and offers George detailed insight into how the robots are wired — they need to be coded to “justify” what is being done to them. They are not just objects to be used and abused.
This is where the film starts to make its most original commentary on how lives and lines of work are given value in this world. Even in this imagined future, sex work still exists, but so does a profound stigma around it; George fears his neighbors seeing him as they carry the double away. But at the same time, he does not seem to care about the uncanny humanity of the robot; he has an intense fascination in her flesh-and-blood counterpart — and starts to ask for her name, claiming to feel a spark of intimacy. She brushes off his awkward passes, saying that while he may have had sex with her doppel, but that does not mean that he knows her.
The “connection” that George claims he feels comes across as a bit rushed, and it’s hard to fully buy into his emotions. What do they really know about one another, or have in common? He is older and nostalgic for the literature of the past, while she is social-media savvy and at the forefront of technological innovation. The plot veers perhaps a little too much into forced romantic cliche as these two show hints of potential bonding, but the characters are at least aware of the strangeness of their meet-cute — and the woman calls out George, a writer who should know better, about his cheesy lines of dialogue.
This sci-fi short offers no promises, though, about the chances that these two lost souls might have found their counterparts in one another, or about the likelihood that they will ever even meet again. Instead, it builds an intriguing world and a storyline that leaves things excitingly open-ended. Doppelbänger is bolstered by the strength of its two lead performers, who both have a charismatic screen presence, and sets up a beguiling future even in its short run-time . Filled with plenty of familiar sci-fi tropes as well as countless imaginative possibilities, it serves as a strong proof of concept and a solid short that ends with a bang.