Warning: if you have not seen STÖMOL, be aware this article does contain spoilers! So if you don’t want your experience spoiled, I suggest you click this link and catch it before you read any further!
Friday, July 24th, 2020 saw the official public première of STÖMOL, a feature-length science fiction machinima filmed entirely in Second Life. Written, directed, edited and produced by Huckleberry Hax, the film also stars Hax in the titular role of Epi Stömol, a private investigator / hunter, with Caitlin Tobias as Waarheid (and who also serves as the film’s assistant director and publicist), Ylva as Verity Certain, Boudicca Amat as Istinito Tatsache, Anthony Wesburn as Adevaru, and Mich Michabo as The Quill.
Set some 40 years into the future, the film combines elements of the graphic novel with those of noir-style films to unfold a tale framed by the search for two missing coders, and which folds into itself questions on the nature of truth and reality in a world impacted by climate change and the control of conglomerates.
On the surface, the story appears straightforward enough: attractive, mysterious woman hires PI / Hunter to locate her missing adopted son. Along the way, the PI encounters another hunter, Waarheid, who is looking for her missing niece – and both boy and girl appear to be two halves of the same puzzle: coders called The Eye and The Quill respectively, who could unlock both the reason for the climate catastrophe impacting the Earth – and also could hold the keys to both reality and our perception of the truth.
Agreeing to seek the girl if Waarheid attempts to locate the boy, Stömol sets about his task, a shadowy, helmeted figure tracking his movements. Whether he is aware of this or not isn’t clear, but Stömol does find the girl – and has an initial encounter with the helmeted figure in the process. Opting not to inform Waarheid of his find, ostensibly to prevent her from ending her search for the boy, Stömol has a further encounter with the mysterious helmeted one, confirming him to be Adevaru. Attempting to strike a deal, Adevaru reveals the true value of the two coders – giving Stömol pause for thought.
Keeping to the bargain, Waarheid, informs Stömol she has located the boy, who is being held against his will. A rescue attempt is made, only to apparently fail, a kidnapper escaping with the boy. This set the film up for a sharp plot twist that is genuinely surprising and unexpected, in the process moving us to the final denouement, which in turn brings the story full circle to connect neatly with the opening sequence.
All very easy to follow. However, this simple sounding narrative actually lies within a much more complex story, one that might be summed up in asking the question just what is truth?
This is exactly what Stömol does as the film opens, mulling over both that and the nature of reality.
Stamp your feet on the ground; down three fingers of whiskey; put a cigarette in your mouth and light it. Is any one of these things real? Is any one of these things “the truth”? Or is truth just a story we create so that things seem to make sense? The line that joins the dots up into a picture that we can understand. We think each dot can only lead to one other; but what if every dot leads to a thousand others, and a million different pictures can be drawn?
– Epi Stömol
Presented in terms of the action that follows these ruminations – the dispatch of an unknown individual carrying an automatic weapon – it’s easy to simply view Stömol’s words as merely reflective of that action; indeed, with a nice slight of narrative, we’re encouraged to do so; but the fact is with this opening statement the film’s focal point is set – and, again, indirectly, a hint is given about Stömol himself.
This element of “truth” being at the core of the film is revealed in other subtle ways as well. Take the names of the principal players Stömol encounters: Verity Certain (itself a play on words), Istinito Tatache, Waarheid – all are words for “truth” and / or the state or quality of being true in their language of origin (English, Croatian and Dutch). Even Adevaru would appear to be a play on Adevărul, Romanian for truth. Similarly, The Eye and The Quill are not randomly chosen names for the two missing coders: the eye is the organ that sees the truth, whilst the quill is the tool by which the truth can be recorded.
It is this layering of elements in which STÖMOL is lifted above being a”simple” tale (although it can still be enjoyed as such), giving it more of a novel-like feel. Similarly, the broader production values evident in the film also help to present it as more of a motion picture than a machinima. Good use is made of framing – over-the-shoulder shots, cutaways, close-ups, all provide depth to STÖMOL.
There are subtleties in approach that give the film added richness. As noted, the twist towards the end of the story is presented in a manner that is so entirely unexpected, I doubt anyone could see it coming. There are also ambiguities scattered throughout that add a certain edge to Stömol. Take the outcome of the rescue attempt: did it really fail, or did Stömol allow the kidnapper to escape with the boy so he might remove Waarheid as a potential rival and thus leaving open his path to having sole control over the Quill and the Eye? And what of the comment about making a gift to the man killed in the opening sequence, is not a new light on this cast within the film’s ending and Stömol’s comments about controlling the truth through The Quill and The Eye?
However, it would be remiss to say STÖMOL is not without its warts. Whilst relatively few, they do jar when they happen – such as the fight scene with Täuschung (another clever name – this time meaning “deception” or “to deceive”; a shame it didn’t go anywhere). It appears to have been included because it had been shot before the core of the story had been settled, and the fight couldn’t be readily re-filmed to better fit the narrative. Thus we’re left with a character that pops up and dies without saying a word and without serving any other purpose than to facilitate a fight.
The narration can also be unsettling. Delivered without cadence, it is peppered with unnatural pauses in delivery that can grate to the point of spoiling enjoyment. A case in point: early in the film Stömol walks the streets in a 4½-minute segment during which he delivers less than a minute of voice-over in total. This is painfully drawn out across the 4½-minutes with clumsy, mid-statement pauses up to 20 seconds in length. It’s a sequence that could have been edited to around 90-100 seconds without losing any of its dramatic edge whilst facilitating a far more fluid narrative delivery.
Elsewhere, the film offers ome nice hat-tips to its major sci-fi influences: Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. These range from the obvious – the use of Zee9’s Drune designs (Bladerunner) plus the atmospheric effects (aka Blade Runner 2049) – through the the more subtle: watching the robotic major domo march into Verity Certain’s pool area ahead of Stömol, I couldn’t help but think of Sebastian’s robotic playmates greeting him on his homecoming. Stömol’s use of a noodle bar also sits as a nod towards Deckhard in Blade Runner.
Overall, STÖMOL is a creditable first outing into feature-length filming in Second Life. Yes it has some faults – name me a film that doesn’t, and technique can always be polished. Certainly, the warts don’t prevent the film from packing a satisfying punch at the end whilst achieving what it sets out to do: entertain.
Oh – and when watching, make sure you do so through the credits: there’s an MCU-style tag scene that offers a hint of what might come in the future.