Can an ad be art—and vice versa? Robert Downey Jr. is testing that question with a series of nine 30-second short films, sponsored by a cell phone company to promote their new device.
The color-coded series is called the M9 Project, after sponsor HTC’s new phone, but the only reference to that is a title card at the end. Otherwise, the shorts are product-free with Downey Jr. himself and creative director Russell Scott of Jetset Studios given liberty to devise a series of surreal experiences for their hero and his onscreen friend/nemesis (played by Brian Schaeffer.)
The shorts dabble in a variety of genres: comedy, horror, film noir, and fantasy among them. Taken together, they make one dreamlike story—each one taking its inspiration and tipping its hat to some other film or piece of art, including Downey Jr.’s own father.
“They were inspired by the lifetime of popular culture that we’ve all ingested,” said Scott. “There are film references, there are TV references. There’s a lot of physical comedy, and a whole different, almost silent-movie type of acting. There’s no real messaging or hucksterism.”
Every company wants a viral video, but if you force the hard sell on viewers they always turn off. Hiring the world’s biggest movie star and giving him freedom to play with the camera seemed like a way to engage viewers. “That was literally the mandate. ‘We want you guys to create some viral content,” said Rob Hackett, creative executive with the actor’s production company, Team Downey. “So we all started drawing on Robert’s inspirations and our inspirations.”
“The throughline from The Prisoner, which was a product of the 1960s, and Andy Warhol and the films of [Downey Jr’s] father, there’s very much a pop art, subversive feel to what we were trying to achieve,” Scott said.
Here’s a list of the shorts and their various inspirations. Check out the films themselves below.
RDJ finds himself tossed into a strange room, facing (semi-)solitary confinement.
Influence: The Prisoner, the 1967-68 cult TV series about a former secret agent named Number Six who finds himself detained in a strange seaside community
Rocked by enemy fire, the hero awakens in a bunker and gets a bright idea.
Inspiration: The Tropic Thunder making-of mockumentary Rain of Madness, which purports to do the same type of exploration Hearts of Darkness did with Apocalypse Now.
Unable to beat a confession out of Downey, Bunny Man lets down his ears (and guard).
Influence: 1950’s Harvey, a whimsical comedy starring James Stewart and a giant rabbit nobody else can see.
He types his way into the realm of pulp fiction.
Influence: The 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich. One of the Mike Hammer mysteries adapted from the work of Mickey Spillane.
The hero cannot resist tormenting the merman as he basks in the moonlight.
Influence: Filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune (a.k.a. A Trip to the Moon,) which featured the Man in the Moon getting a rocket ship to the eye.)
The merman is back for revenge, but the hero sits at a tiny piano and discovers music soothes the savage fish.
Influence: 1996’s Shine, starring Geoffrey Rush as a piano player with a troubled history who finds peace amid the black and white keys.
You’ve heard of Pop Art. Now combine that with baseball and a pop fly.
Influence: Andy Warhol’s portrait of Pete Rose, a 1985 four-quadrant screen print of the baseball great as he neared the record for baseball’s all-time hits record.
In which the hero reflects on the infinite depths …
Influence: Cinefamily’s “A Night With Robert Downey Sr.,” a series of screenings held last December as tribute to the actor’s father and his surreal films.
Thing get freaky…
Influence: 1977’s Eraserhead, David Lynch’s debut feature film, about a man and a mutant baby in a blighted, industrial landscape.
The hero discovers the key to unlocking the loop.
Influence: 1936’s Modern Times, a comedy from Charlie Chaplin (whom Downey Jr. played in a 1992 bio-pic) about the desperation of a working man.