Number 13 [Jonell Rowe, UK, 2017]
We’ve all been there before: stuck in a seemingly never-ending supermarket queue that dwindles only at the mercy of the dead-eyed, grumpy teenager who, in a heartbeat, would trade the repetitive swipe-scan-bleep of groceries for the equally thankless act of swiping their thumbs across the glass of a smartphone, lost in its magnetic gleam of backlit ones and zeroes. Just as you get towards the front of the crawling queue, the scanner breaks down, or the cashier is scheduled for their break, or they endlessly struggle to find the barcode for a loose bunch of onions, or (insert any number of other frequently experienced inconveniences here)…
Number 13 starts out drily observing the relatable perils of having to deal with such instances of inefficiency, opening with a disgruntled woman storming over to the self-checkout machine to do the job that the cashier has failed to perform. “Not that difficult was it?!” huffs the lady, perfectly setting up the turn of strange events to follow.
Enter Adrian, (played with innocent charm by Karl Queensborough) an unsuspecting shopper on his way to an audition and who – caught in the crossfire of a verbal chastisement of its human counterpart – is waylaid by the artificially intelligent checkout machine. Nobody else seems to be cognizant of the computer’s apparent consciousness. Adrian and 'Number 13' strike up conversation, discussing the world at large along with their own hopes and ambitions, with it becoming immediately clear that the A.I. dreams of escape from its own cybernetic imprisonment. Meanwhile, the human cashier, afraid of losing work hours and taking matters into his own hands, plots wilful sabotage to the more effective self-checkout machine. Sensing her impending doom, Number 13 presents Adrian with concise on-screen instructions to aid in her liberation.
Number 13 plays cleverly with a classic sci-fi idea, adding a ‘kitchen-sink’ mundanity and realism to its (near) futuristic themes, acutely dissecting both the technophilic and technophobic tendencies within our modern society. It is an amusing and smart work from Jonell Rowe, full of ideas and adopting a sensitive approach to larger socio-political concerns. We will be sure to ‘checkout’ what he does next.