Fingernails Wants to Test the Limits of What We Think of as Sci-Fi
Director Christos Nikou speaks about channeling dating app anxiety into a low-tech world.
In Fingernails, filmmaker Christos Nikou explores the computerization of courtship — a distressing issue familiar to anyone who has opened Tinder or Hinge. But in Nikou’s indie science-fiction movie, the future of intimacy is surprisingly low-tech.
When the film starts, Jessie Buckley’s Anna and Jeremy Allen White’s Ryan are a couple who participate in a test certifying their compatibility. This confirmation of the married couple’s chemistry comes at a biological cost: both participants have to surrender a fingernail to the machine in order to confirm their match. Once it runs the analysis, the test spits out an assessment of whether two, one, or none of the fingernails indicate the couple belongs together.
“We will not take the whole finger,” Nikou, who also co-wrote the film, tells Inverse, “because Martin McDonagh took the whole finger last year in The Banshees of Inisherin!” He’s joking, but don’t let the titular body part fool you as to the size of his ambitions. Fingernails shows it’s entirely possible to create a probing, poignant look at how technology warps modern ideas of love without showing many intricate devices or inventions at all.
In such a small object, Nikou finds a loaded metaphor that can speak to many different aspects of today’s tortured love. “Cellphones are extensions of our fingers,” he notes, based on observing friends swiping furiously on dating apps, “The nails are the part of the fingers that protect them.” The concept extends even further when considering what else might go on those appendages. “We try to symbolize prov[ing] love through weddings and by putting the wedding ring on [our] finger,” Nikou noticed.
It’s a simple metaphor, and one that reflects Nikou’s refreshingly straightforward approach to sci-fi. Unlike films like Blade Runner 2049 or Her, which envision the future of intimacy through a gloomy dystopia or a bombastic satire, Nikou spurns the ironic distance that makes viewers feel held at arm’s length in typical sci-fi movies. “Most of the time, these conceptual stories are very futuristic, distant, and cold,” Nikou laments. “We wanted to create something that would be very inviting for people. We didn't want to approach it in a clinical way.”
And what better grounding force than the soft glow of nostalgia? “I had the feeling that maybe it's a movie that we shot at the end of [the] '90s or the beginning of 2000s,” Nikou claims. “It's a prophecy about our life that somebody put in a shoebox, and people are discovering it right now.” From the early desktop feel of the fingernail machine all the way down to the grainy luster of the 35mm stock on which cinematographer Marcell Rév shoots the film, Fingernails cuts against the grain of its conceptual futurism by marrying symbolism with practicality.
His allegorical instincts come alive most vividly in the film’s production design, which ably blends immersive world-building with a lived-in quality. “Zazu Myers, our great production designer, immediately understood how we were trying to create something that is very timeless,” Nikou elaborates, “but probably takes place a little bit before the internet was so omnipresent in our life.” The duo played heavily with wood in the set design to give it a warmer feel than the sleeker, chillier surfaces of cutting-edge architecture. The effect is a minimalism that never feels austere.
Signifiers like the Spice Girls and the sound of the testing machine, which Nikou said drew inspiration from the old 56k modem sound, also help set the overall milieu of the film without boxing it into a specific time period. But don’t mistake that loose interplay between past and future as any lack of rigor in the design. Nikou’s films pack significant, revealing details throughout the frame to help sell the veracity of his invented landscape. Streaming viewers quick to pause for Easter eggs may find the film a particularly rich text. “Nothing looks empty,” Nikou observes. (To validate his point, he adds that Riz Ahmed asked to take posters from the walls of the institute to keep at home.)
This layered approach falls in line with Nikou’s overall storytelling style as well, which eschews an early exposition dump that might explain how the fingernail test assumed such centrality in society. “I love creating anticipation for the audience to understand things,” Nikou explains. “I'm trying to go to the core of the story by revealing things gradually.” By his telling, every scene in Fingernails provides some clue as to how this environment fell into place.
This approach of learning about technology through its effect on people, rather than as if through a manual, is not without precedent. Nikou cites The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as two titles of particular inspiration for the film, and it’s not hard to see those fingerprints all over his grounded approach to high-concept storytelling. Beyond design and aesthetics, these films also lend Nikou an archetype to help personalize a system that might seem like the stuff of pure imagination to viewers. Technology is ultimately the people who make it, after all, and in Fingernails, that’s Luke Wilson’s Duncan, the man overseeing the love institute where Anna and Amir work.
Nikou likens Duncan to creator figures like Ed Harris’ Christof and Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Howard Mierzwiak. “But we tried to create him with also a personal story and issue,” Nikou elaborates on why Duncan was not simplified into a mere villain. “Because he had also divorced, and he suffered, that's probably why he created the whole institute.” These shades of a backstory allow the film to personify today’s Big Tech, which steps in to provide quick fixes to problems that cannot be solved short of gaining a genuine understanding of the brain and heart.
At this point, it might be fair to ask if Fingernails counts as science fiction at all, given how frequently it defies conventions. Nikou suggests if his film can bear that title, it’s only because he takes an expansive view of what the genre means. He baked a clue about his intentions in the film by having Anna visit a cinema to see a program of Hugh Grant films. “All these movies are also science fiction, in a way,” Nikou says. “More than Fingernails, I believe.”
Pointing at films written and directed by Richard Curtis in particular, he makes a compelling case that these flirtatious fantasies require giant leaps of logic to make sense. Fingernails, by comparison, offers a much more realistic look at the choices everyday people face. It just happens to feature a mysterious computer and bandaged fingernails. Nikou might have a lofty task to redraw the genre borders of the romantic comedy. But for now, he can rest easy knowing he’s continued pushing the boundaries of science fiction in a way that can elevate humanism over futurism.