by Indy Datta
Or, as festival director Louis Savy, or one of his good-natured and indefatigable team will inform you before almost every screening, Scifi London for short. I’ve been going to the festival since its inception in 2002; reviews after the jump of the films I managed to see this year.
Best Friends Forever (Brea Grant, 2013)
Brea Grant and Vera Miao’s feminist SF road movie follows recently discharged mental patient/freelance comic book inker Harriet (Grant) and her emotionally damaged and reckless best friend Reba (Vera Miao, who also produced, and co-wrote the screenplay with Grant) on a journey from Los Angeles to Austin, where Harriet has been admitted to librarian school. What they don’t realize as they drive through the California desert a short way into their journey is that persons unknown (my guesses: Al Qaeda, North Korea, Beliebers) have dropped a nuclear bomb on LA, completely obliterating it, along with three other unnamed US cities (my guesses: New York, Chicago, Intercourse PA). This, incidentally, despite the fact that we see a shot of them ostensibly driving away from a massive mushroom cloud that has suddenly appeared on their aft horizon. But it’s okay, we also get a shot of them not being able to get any reception on their car radio, which explains why they don’t know anything about it. Provided we ignore all the other bits where we see other people listening to the radio or watching TV for nuclear war-based exposition.
Our heroines, like some kind of peri-apocalyptic Thelma and Louise (they get the namecheck in nice and early), encounter various rum types on their way to Austin, including a truck driver who gives them a ride but takes against Reba, as she’s Asian, and therefore possibly responsible for dropping the bomb (RACISM is a theme the film will return to later but I won’t have the energy to talk about it by the time I get that far in this review), and a bunch of effete young hipster men who are possibly suffering from radiation sickness, one of the side effects of which turns out to be rapeyness (the risk of radiation sickness causing rapeyness appears – ironically! – to be proportional to precisely how effete and ostensibly new-mannish a hipster one is). But because everybody they meet talks about the fucking atom bomb that just dropped on LA juuust elliptically enough that our heroines don’t pick up on their allusions, it’s not until just before we get to Austin that Harriet discovers what’s happened. Of course, she chooses not to tell Reba, why would she?
While all this is happening, the film is periodically interrupted by intertitles that are counting down to a “Disaster”. Obviously that disaster can’t be the nuclear bombs, which have already dropped. And it can’t be the moment when Reba finds out that Harriet has, by omission, been lying to her about the world having ended, because that would be painfully lame and a little offensive, as if an audience is expected to give a shit about two not-so-bright young women having a meaningless tiff when MILLIONS HAVE BEEN JUST BEEN WIPED OUT OF EXISTENCE. I’ll leave you to discover what the actual disaster is for yourself!
Once in Austin, which thankfully hasn’t been reduced to a smoking wasteland, probably because the North Koreans really dig South by Southwest, Reba and Harriet attend a pool party at Harriet’s sister’s house, of course. I mock, but it’s a pool party of drunken despair, which I suppose could happen, in the circumstances. Reba and Harriet then fight about something or other that I honestly haven’t spoiled for you, and Reba (or possibly Harriet, I forget) flees into the Austin night in search of trouble. At one point, the TV and lights go off at the party, plunging the revelers into darkness. Like the end of the world! Except, when we cut to Reba (or possibly Harriet), it’s obvious that only Harriet’s sister’s house’s block is affected, so that’s all right, then. I’m sure I remember seeing that somewhere in Austin, people have put up a wall of the missing, just like after 9/11, but I must be mistaken because Austin hasn’t been bombed in the film, so nobody would, in fact, be missing, and surely the film makers aren’t inept and stupid enough to so meaninglessly and cheaply borrow the emotion and gravitas of an actual tragedy in such a clumsy way?
So anyway, some other stuff happens that, just as I predicted up there, I can’t be bothered to go into, as a result of which Harriet and Reba reaffirm that they are best friends forever, and then the closing credits show their Mad Max/Tank Girl type post-apocalyptic adventures in the form of a comic strip. I can’t wait for the sequel.
That was quite long. Sorry.
The Search for Simon (Martin Gooch, 2013)
Martin Gooch has made a number of successful comic short films (notably the acclaimed Orgasm Raygun) and one feature, Death, which played at SciFi London last year. The Search for Simon was partly produced by the festival itself, and is identifiably in the vein of Gooch’s pervious work – taking an irreverent approach to science fictional tropes squarely from within the British comedy tradition of bad puns, pomposity-puncturing bathos and non sequiturs – a tradition represented within the film’s cast by Simon “Arthur Dent” Jones and Carol “Python” Cleveland. The film’s lead is Gooch himself – at the screening he noted that this was because he was the only lead cheap enough. This is a distinctly cheap and cheerful production, and while it’s probably fair to say that other films in the festival eked more impressive production values out of similar budgets, almost none had the charm, sincerity or comic skill that Gooch marshals to turn his film’s amiable ricketiness into one of its primary virtues.
Gooch’s character, David, is an unemployed late 30’s loner who lives with his mother and believes that his younger brother Simon was abducted by aliens when they were children. His lifelong obsession with alien abduction and UFOs alienates him from his mother and his friends, makes him prey to unscrupulous scammers on the internet and brings him to the attention of the shadowy government agency British AeroSpace Technology and Research Development Division (er, “B.A.S.T.A.R.D.”). As David gets closer to the truth, will he be reunited with his brother, or will his life prove to have been founded on a delusion?
The destination that The Search for Simon arrives at is pretty predictable, and I can’t honestly tell you that your conveyance to that destination is particularly slick or stylish, but Gooch’s film is funny and open-hearted enough to be worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time. Anyone with a sense of humour, at least.
Dead Weight (Adam Bartlett, John Pata, 2012)
Charlie (Joe Belknap) is a slacker who hasn’t realised that America has been overrun by zombies (Dead Weight represents the reductio ad absurdum of the budgetary appeal of zombies to low budget genre film makers – until a very late scene, we see nothing of the purported zombie plague beyond a few pairs of shambling legs in the background, disembodied by the framing) until his go-getting long-distance girlfriend Samantha (Mary Lindberg) phones to tell him about it. In the opening scene of the film, thankfully, so there’s that, at least. He insists that she makes her way to meet him in the small town where they first met, believing it will be a place of safety. The film is then taken up with Charlie’s misadventures on the road with the band of survivors he takes up with, interspersed with reverse chronological order flashbacks to Charlie and Samantha’s pre zombie apocalypse relationship.
Bartlett and Pata, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing, have come up with a reasonably sturdy structure for their film – and I assume their intention is to show the seeds of Charlie’s post-disaster behavior in his pre-disaster characterization, as their relationship comes under strain when she moves away for a fancy job. Unfortunately, there is no connection, enlightening or otherwise, that I can discern between pre Charlie’s resentment of his girlfriend’s success, and his fear of losing her to ambition and distance, and post Charlie’s ENTIRELY FUCKING RANDOM SEQUENCE OF COMPLETELY INEXPLICABLE BEHAVIOUR. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into detail, I got it all out of my system in the Best Friends Forever review, I think.
The line by line writing and performing of all the post-apocalypse scenes doesn’t help, being uniformly stilted and on the nose – the pre stuff is notably sharper, while still not pleasurable to sit through. Visually, the main thing I noticed, apart from the odd landscape beauty shot, was that the tops of many shots distractingly bisecting the heads of the actors. By the time I got to the end of Dead Weight, I was desperate to see something that showed some evidence that someone had thought just a little about its visual aesthetics.
Vessel (Adam Ciancio, 2013)
Vessel certainly delivered, at least initially, the visual kick I’d been missing. Ciancio’s background as a director of commercials shines through, his coolly controlled widescreen compositions making the Melbourne locations feel intriguingly empty and eerie, albeit in a way that was rather reminiscent of the Australian existential puzzler Exit from last year’s festival.
The film opens with a screen full of expository text that tells us that NASA has been working on a programme to use telepaths known as “interfacers” to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences. But when we meet our protagonist Ash (Mark Diaco), he’s talking to a sinister Australian man in an abandoned building, and it becomes clear that, while he may be talking to aliens, he isn’t doing it for NASA, and furthermore he wants out.
Unfortunately, Ciancio pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience, and while the ostensible through line of the plot remains Ash’s search for the mysterious Alena who will free him from the burden of his telepathic gift, the scene by scene progress of the film is given over to Ash revisiting various people he has wronged in his life to piece his psyche and soul back together, in an echo of Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet. Unfortunately, that is, because those scenes are painfully lugubrious, thinly written, and unconvincingly performed. After about four hours I looked at my watch to discover that only 40 minutes had passed, so I went to the pub. It might have got better after I left.
Sado Tempest (John Williams, 2012)
English-born director John Williams has been making films in Japan since at least 2001’s Firefly Dreams. His latest is a rock musical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Tempest set in the near future on the island of Sado, where a rock star (who, as far as I could make out and for reasons that remain obscure to me, is the reincarnation of the medieval emperor Juntoku) has been exiled to a prison on the island. There he encounters various characters analogous to those in Shakespeare’s play, like the brutal and corrupt prison warder, a riff on Shakespeare’s Caliban.
While it was a blessed relief to finally see a film at this festival that achieved basic professional competence in visuals, writing and performance (and, to be fair, then some, this is a vivid piece of work in many ways), I must admit that Sado Tempest passed me by on this viewing. I have no doubt I’m missing some of the cultural cues that would unpack it (although I think the film is to some extent a response to the devastation of the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami), and would see it again.
Piercing Brightness (Shezad Dawood, 2013)
My last film of the festival, by far the best, and one I saw by pure happenstance, as the screening I had planned to see (sorry, Dark by Noon) was running so late. I’d initially skipped over Piercing Brightness as I was unfamiliar with the work of Shezad Dawood, a fine art film maker whose first feature this is, and the programme’s comparisons with the TV series The 4400 did little to entice me.
The setup of Piercing Brightness (which Dawood says is heavily influenced by the trippier end of Philip K Dick) is simple in outline. An ordinary provincial English town, Preston, is secretly a portal through which aliens pass into our world and take human form so as to study human civilisation. Many aliens have lived among us for many human lifetimes, some have forgotten they are not human, many feel stranded here. Dawood’s film doesn’t have a single central plot, instead weaving together the stories of two new arrivals who have taken the form of Chinese tourists with (just to take a sampling) the story of the south Asian shopkeeper who is really a centuries-old alien who acts as their earthly liaison, and the story of a middle aged (white) woman obsessed with UFO sightings, and her daughter’s flirtation with a possibly trafficked Chinese immigrant.
Preston is, according to Dawood, the UK’s hotspot for UFO sightings, and much of his film purports to be quasi-documentary reconstruction or archive footage of such sightings (much of it strikingly abstract, the influence of experimental film titan Stan Brakhage seemed clear to me). He also turns his camera on the quotidian life (and nightlife) of the town, mixing the documentary and pseudodocumentary footage with filmed dance performances, seemingly random insert shots of exotic wildlife, and the scripted scenes, which are filmed in styles ranging from deadpan, rectilinear penny-plain to scuffed, distressed pseudo-documentary. He layers images over each other and butts them up against each other, always alive to the use of montage as both a rhetorical device and a purely aesthetic one.
Piercing Brightness is witty, beautiful, confusing and, in aspects such as its sincere repurposing of SF tropes and its equation of anthropological otherness with extraterrestrial otherness, not a little bit goofy. One film this vibrant, surprising and alive at next year’s festival, and it will all have been worth it yet again.
I didn’t get to see any of this year’s short film programmes, unfortunately. But I wanted to note that SciFi London’s 48 Hour film challenge has uncovered talented newcomers in the past (including Gareth “Monsters, Godzilla” Edwards), so here’s this year’s winner, which is possibly a bit NSFW.