Arthur is a sci-fi enthusiast, with a passion for genre shows and memorabilia. While calling customer service about a problem with a recent order, he develops a rapport with a service agent named Katie. Katie seems friendly and easy to talk to, so much that Arthur feels a genuine connection to her.
When Arthur gets the package for his order replacement, he finds a note from Katie. Touched by Katie's personal touch, he tries to reconnect with her, only to discover that she isn't what she seems.
Directed by Keith Allott from a script by Kevin Richmond-Walls, this perceptive sci-fi short has the acuity and poignancy of a traditional drama, with its focus on the emotional landscape of its reclusive, isolated character. Though the narrative scope is confined to one live-action character in a room having two separate conversations with an off-screen character, the narrative goes deep and reaps insight into the fundamental human desire for connection, thanks to excellent writing and performances, steady pacing and disciplined camerawork.
We don't know much about Arthur or life outside his home. Instead, the storytelling is focused on the transformation that happens throughout a simple, seemingly quotidian conversation between him and Katie. Customer service has devolved into almost pure functionality, but Katie's deviations from the typical scripts surprise Arthur, especially when she bonds with him over his favorite shows. The writing captures the pleasures of making an unexpected connection and, more importantly, just how much light it brings to a lonely life. That loneliness is also implied by the tight, cramped way Arthur is shot, shrouded with shadows, alone in his workshop or living space.
Arthur and Katie's banter could border on flirtatious, but the appeal of it is not the promise of romance. Instead, in a life full of isolation, the film succeeds in capturing just how comforting and vital relating to another human being is, even on the simplest level. Actor Michael Muyunda's performance is a subtle and rich one, capturing a private, cloistered demeanor from too much time spent alone. But as he talks with Katie, Arthur is pulled out of himself by her easygoing chitchat, unfurling a wonder at connecting to another person so easily.
If "Lifelike" was a naturalistic drama, the story would likely go develop its themes of human connection towards a promising heart-warming conclusion. But it stays true to its sci-fi genre bona-fides, revealing a sharp interrogation of how technology can leverage and even manipulate our fundamental human needs. Created during a Covid-19 lockdown, the film evokes isolation deftly, as well as the sheer relief and joy of human communication. We are social beings, and we hunger for connection, recognition and relating. The film touches upon this truth with honesty and openness. But seeing that vulnerability betrayed in a small but piercing way is painful for Arthur, and for the viewer -- it's not quite dystopian, but piercingly unsettling.