A Million Days

A Million Days (2023)

A Million Days had its world première on Fri 25 Aug at FrightFest

A Million Days opens with text, and with a nightmarish image. The text informs us that in 2041, owing to Earth’s impending ecological collapse, the survival of humanity will require settling new worlds through the pioneering ‘Seed Programme’, which is being facilitated by an evolving artificial intelligence system known as Jay. The image shows a woman, Nazra (Nina Mahdavi), adrift in her damaged space suit somewhere above the moon, and weakly calling for help over the intercom as her oxygen runs out. “I haven’t got much time”, she says with sad desperation – and her words, though urgently true for herself, also match the predicament of everyone on Earth below, where the climate is changing and resources are rapidly dwindling.

The next image we see is another solitary figure in a space suit, although this time it is an ornament standing on the bottom of a fish tank. The location – where the rest of Mitch Jenkins’ film will take place – is the isolated, modernist, clifftop home shared by Commander Anderson Reigel (Simon Merrells) and his wife Sam (Kemi-Bo Jacobs). They are a power couple whose work lies at the heart of the Seed Programme: Anderson is a highly experienced and capable astronaut due to fly out to the first lunar colony early the next morning; and Sam is the exacting computer scientist who wrote the initial code for Jay shortly after first meeting Anderson, and who has since worked closely with the ever-expanding AI. Their relationship is tightly bound, almost symbiotic, rooted in common goals and mutual respect – although Anderson’s heart still belongs to Nazra, whose final recorded words he replays obsessively. This is both a haunted house, and a peculiar ménage à trois, with Sam very aware that a part of Anderson will always belong to someone else.

Indeed a third party will arrive to disrupt the couple’s last night together. A newly recruited member of her team, Charlie (Hermione Corfield), comes laden with the latest projected simulations from Jay, unexpectedly calculated a million days (which is to say 2740 years) into the future. The dizzying implications of these uncannily accurate data will keep this trio up all night as they try to grasp just what Jay has become, what the ‘greater good’ might mean on a spatiotemporal scale way beyond humanity’s understanding, and just how closely they are willing to collaborate with a technology that they now know has been secretly working around all its programmed protocol restrictions. Meanwhile the fugitive Captain Gene Campbell (Darrell D’Silva), whom Anderson holds personally responsible for Nazra’s death in space, has resurfaced and is circling in. 

A Million Days may essentially assume the form of a dramatic chamber piece, confining its events, with impressive Aristotelian unity, to a single time and place – but the dialogues between its dramatis personae, stage-managed (with various prompts and cues) by Jay, extrapolate far into the outer realms of time and space, with cosmically mind-blowing ramifications. So this is the cinema of ideas – science fiction that keeps reaching beyond its own bounds, and that seeks to convince us, along with its human characters, of a very different future for life from the one that we normally imagine.

Playing with concepts familiar from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008), Giordano Giulivi’s The Laplace’s Demon (2017), Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s Aniara (2018) and even Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023), while remaining within a grounded budget, Jenkins’ film tracks the ghost in the AI machine and the helpless fragility of our species – a species which must evolve beyond its genetic programming for there to be any hope of survival. 

One subtle aspect (amid many) in A Million Days is Sam’s jealousy. Sam has long had to live with the knowledge that Anderson loved Nazra more than her, and you can see the anxiety etched in Sam’s face when pretty young Charlie meets Anderson, goes out walking alone with him, and almost strips naked in front of him. Sam is always afraid of the other woman – and Jay, rather conspicuously, is gendered as female. So while this is most certainly a story of technological singularity, it is also an adultery tale, old-fashioned yet with an updated twist, as it traces one man’s furtive straying, far far from home. It is a melancholic, yet oddly hopeful, vision of domestic apocalypse, demanding that, if humanity is to overcome present and future global crises, bitter, possibly painful pills must be swallowed .

strap: Mitch Jenkins’ sci-fi chamber piece effortlessly transcends restrictions of budget and location in pursuit of its ambitious ideas

© Anton Bitel