The popularity and ubiquity of the anthology series Black Mirror is a double-edges sword. On one hand, there is a new generation of audiences who are interested in exploring how technology disrupts the human experience (usually in disturbing ways). Now that multiple seasons are readily available to stream, these same audiences are familiar with the tropes, so it takes a lot to surprise them. The new sci-fi film Little Joe would not exact without Black Mirror, and Black Mirror is part of the reason it unfolds in such a monotonous way. By unfolding a dispassionately, it wants audiences to think more than they react, but what it will ultimately inspire is disengagement.
Director Jessica Hausner, working from a script she co-wrote with Géraldine Bajard, mostly sets the action in a biotech research firm. Our entry point is Alice (Emily Beecham), a scientist who is on the verge of a breakthrough: a houseplant that can “make people happy.” The plant is still in an early phase, but convince it is harmless, she decides to bring it home to her young son Joe (Kit Connor). As Alice and others grow increasingly comfortable with the plant, nicknamed “Little Joe,” something strange starts to happen. People act slightly off, in a way that is hard to pin down. Alice’s coworker Bella (Kerry Fox) becomes convinced her beloved dog is an impostor, and has him put down. Her other coworker Chris (a visibly bored Ben Whishaw) was once skeptical of Little Joe, and now embraces the plant. It is as if the plant can infect the mind.
Any fan of the horror of sci-fi genre has seen this kind of story play out. It is a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a classic story about paranoia and the fear of the familiar. What makes Little Joe different than those invasion thrillers is its sterile formal qualities. There a scene midway through the film where Bella confronts Alice outside their office building. A typical thriller would shoot their dialogue with close-ups, focusing on Bella’s anxiety and Alice’s dismissal of it. Instead, Hausner keeps her distance from the dialogue, opting for a long shot as if the camera is another office drone shuffling into work. Her purpose is to eschew genre tropes: she does not want to scare audience, just creep them out. The trouble is that the genre still requires some “red meat” so that there is some sense of danger, or fear. Most of Little Joe unfolds like a quirky office comedy. There are some eerie aesthetic touches, like the harsh color palette of green and white, although they do little to add to the immersion.
You can probably guess exactly where Little Joe is going. More and more people get infected, to the point where there is seemingly only one sane person left. The allegorical implications are just as familiar as they were in the 1950s and 1970s. It is easier to acquiesce to conformity than to assert your desires as an individual. Little Joe attempts to update that idea with modern anxiety, corporate malfeasance, and modern parenting trends. Little Joe has quite the pedigree, whether you look at Hausner’s art house credentials, or that the film premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Anti-horror” is not inherently interesting because of how it turns tropes on their hand; it also has to stand on its own. The ironic thing – one that tasteful filmmakers like Hausner might never realize – is that many unabashed genre directors are just as aware and frightened by the dangers that will soon befall us all. They just don’t need glacial pacing and learned detachment to indicate they are serious about it.