Jess has applied for a job at a high-tech call center and is being offered a real-time test “in the field” to test her abilities. She and her competitor are taken into an isolated floor and room, where it’s just them and their consoles, which are programmed with several pre-planned scripts and responses.
But when Jess’s competitor collapses — and she’s unable to break out of their isolated chamber to get help — she must use the state-of-the-art console to contact any kind of help. The problem? The state of the machine is anything but helpful, and Jess must think quick to save a life.
Writer-director Harry Jackson’s short sci-fi drama takes a look at what happens when technology has completely streamlined human communication in the name of convenience. Like many sci-fi stories, it looks at the intersection of technology and the vagaries of human existence, examining how innovations often fail to account for human complexity and unpredictability.
The film keeps the special effects and the plot simple and focused, narrowing the scope of the story to one incident. The writing weaves the crisis event as it unravels with the recent past, and while the toggling story structure feels occasionally disjointed at first, it also infuses a sense of tension throughout the short without stopping for much backstory or information.
But when the story finds its rhythm and heightens the stakes, watching Jess work hard to master the auto-response system and use it to new ends is compelling and puzzle-like. Actress Gwyneth Keyworth offers an effective and engaging performance that allows the audience to experience frustration, confusion and panic alongside with her, which pays off in a final reveal that is “Black Mirror”-like in its sense of arch irony and bleak humor.
In a genre that often goes for grand spectacle and elevated intellect, what’s most effective about “Lifeline” is its simplicity and ordinariness. The touch console interface that Jess uses may be slightly more advanced than we’re used to, but call-response technology is already here (as anyone who’s ever had to press a series of numbers on a phone call to get to a human can attest to.) As customer service jobs — and other work situations — become fully automated, it provokes questions of just what we lose when we’re reduced to a script.