February marked the 36th annual Boston SciFi Film Festival, and the first night of the SF36 was devoted to five recent short films under the program title “Dangerous Visions” (no connection to the famous 1967 anthology). I thought it might be worth examining these films briefly, to see what today’s “dangerous visions” were, and to capture something of the state of contemporary short film SF. Given how Neill Blomkamp’s short “Alive in Joburg” begot his big-budget feature film District 9, these may be directors to keep an eye on in the future. And a few of these films, at least, are very much worth watching in the present.
Some caveats. First, I am not a film critic. There will be cinematic areas and techniques–matters of directing, editing, cinematography, acting–that may be crucial to fully appreciating a film, but that I simply won’t recognize enough to comment on. I am writing this from the standpoint of a casual watcher of film but a more-than-casual consumer of science fiction, in the hope it might be useful primarily to a similar audience. Second, I should note that this review of one night’s program should not overly reflect on the SciFi Film Festival overall, which included ten days of other programming.
Finally, please also note that my presumption is that most people reading this will not easily have access to view these films, so I will be describing plots in detail, including “spoilers.” However, for “Planes de Futuro” and “Solita” I have included links to watch the films online; you may wish to do so before reading those sections below. Although, because these are such short films and each goes by so quickly, I think knowing what happens in them and why may lead to a greater appreciation of the films while watching them.
Time’s Up Eve
US, Patrick Rea (writer and director), Jon Niccum (writer)
We open the film, and the Festival overall, with a black and white shot of the mean streets of a nameless city at night. A damsel in distress gives us voice-over as she runs, avec trench coat, away from shadowy pursuers. Yes, we’re on planet noir. As she runs, our protagonist Eve explains to us that she is one of the last humans left, that aliens have come to Earth to harvest our souls. Eve takes refuge in her office building, where she looks longingly at framed videos of her BFF and a boyfriend. There is a noise from below. She uncovers a peephole in the office floor, watches as her downstairs neighbor–a “dealer” who facilitated the harvesting of souls–is himself taken by the aliens. Then the noises move to the stairwell. Eve flees to the streets, only to encounter two shuffling human forms. They are (surprise!) the zombie-like husks of her best friend and her boyfriend, come wanting their souls back–because (surprise!surprise!) Eve, too, is a dealer in souls, who sold them both out to prolong her own freedom. She reveals that she has kept her boyfriend’s soul in a small box shaped like a treasure chest, rather than giving it to the aliens (no mention is made of the BFF’s soul). And rather than giving up her boyfriend’s soul to the aliens now, she tosses it into a sewer, leaving her former friend and her former boyfriend to hold her down as the aliens take her own soul. Time’s up, Eve. It’s not hard living without a soul, a slumped and inert Eve muses as the film ends, when you haven’t had one for a long time anyway.
Some of these individual elements are well done: Eve fleeing not to her home but to her office, and the related sense–if underdeveloped–that the aliens are simply doing a job as well; the tiny shining marbles of the souls, which are the only bit of color in the film. The storytelling is well-paced and, with a run time of only 12 minutes, economical. But while literalizing the idea of selling souls in this manner might have been a dangerous vision in 1950, today it feels not so much retro as dated, an extended setup for final lines that don’t cut as they once might have. And the film’s central image–a professional woman, a sexual woman (and indeed Eve, the proto-woman) as a soul-stealing but otherwise undeveloped character–makes an unfortunately apt introduction to this collection of short films, considering how often that image will be repeated.
Cosas Feas (“Nasty Stuff”)
Mexico, Isaac Ezban (writer and director)
“Cosas Feas,” for example, is a film not improved by its proximity to the misogyny of some of the other films. Kriko Krakinsky is a schoolboy in Mexico attending his first sexual education class. As the diagrams and descriptions offered by the teacher become more and more explicit, Kriko begins first to sweat, then to tremble, and finally he flees the classroom, to the mocking jeers of his classmates over his apparent embarrassment. When he returns home, however, we realize that something more than boyish embarrassment is afoot. His parents, and his older brother and accompanying girlfriend, all act in a parody of domestic tranquility. Random pictures and objects hang crookedly on the walls for decoration; Kriko’s mother cooks without having any idea what food should look like; the father reads non sequitur excerpts from the newspaper; the brother and his girlfriend scream and moan and shake from their upstairs bedroom all night long without sleep at all–and Kriko has been forbidden to disturb them. Meanwhile, clips of classic SF films of alien invasion play on the TV, and Kriko himself totes around a small planet on his keychain. When he asks his parents where they are from originally, they only reply that they’re from far away indeed. “Cosas Feas” announces loudly but cleverly just how knowing it is.
Which is important for what comes next: one night Kriko can no longer bear the thumps and screams from his brother’s room, and sneaks in. He encounters his brother performing oral sex on his girlfriend–except her vagina is a monstrous toothed-and-tentacled maw spewing green slime, H.R. Giger-like in its mix of insect and reptilian qualities. My first reaction was mortification: if the somewhat distant, off-camera fear of female sexuality present in “Time’s Up, Eve” wasn’t bad enough, here was SF’s oft-implicit fear of female sexuality made vividly explicit. The scene went on and on. I began to sweat, and then to tremble. I contemplated walking out, in protest and disgust–at both the visuals, and the message. And that’s when I realized (I can be kind of slow) that this was precisely Kriko’s reaction to the depiction of human sexuality at the start of the film. I realized that my reaction was precisely what filmmaker Isaac Ezban had hoped to evoke. Alien sex doesn’t mean scantily-clad blue-skinned humanoid aliens who fuck in exactly the same way humans do; alien sex means alien sex. This is science fiction in the sense of Kij Johnson’s “Spar,” or in the sense Peter Watts frequently deploys: that the human way isn’t necessarily the only way or even the best way, and that true aliens would be just as likely to find us disgusting as we so often find their portrayals.
In “Cosas Feas,” Kriko imagines what his older brother and his girlfriend are up to that causes so much noise to come from their bedroom at night.
On further consideration, if there’s anything truly wrong with “Cosas Feas” it is that it goes on for about five minutes too long after this point, leading up to Kriko’s own first mating ceremony. (Also, the quality of the print was iffy, and the subtitles often belated). On the other hand, the acting is all very well done in a necessarily over-the-top sort of way; and the close, somewhat fish-eyed cinematography very ably conveys the claustrophobic world of a solitary child aware he doesn’t quite fit in. In this way the film ably straddles the line between depiction of the truly alien, and more everyday human experiences of coexistence and assimilation–for youth into the world of adulthood, and for many “aliens” into new cultures. So: a true SF film that’s interesting and undeniably effective in retrospect, although not a lot of fun to sit through.
UK/Hong Kong, Lawrence Gray (writer and director)
The breezy tone of “Zombie Radio” made it a good respite after the visual and thematic assault of “Cosas Feas”; on the other hand, that very breeziness, and the film’s placement here between the night’s two most memorable shorts, combined to make it largely forgettable. But here’s what I remember: “Freak of the Week” Frank, a conspiracy nut and claimed alien abductee, is a frequent caller to a radio news and opinion show–a show hosted by a sultry woman who apparently rejected Frank when they were in school together. During one such call, Frank’s car collides with a bicyclist–ridden by another attractive woman–while he fumbles with the phone trying to report a Bigfoot sighting. He and the bicyclist make common cause and chase the Bigfoot together; later, she takes him to bed, calling into the radio show and taunting the host that she must be a heartless zombie for rejecting Frank. Later, however, when they find Bigfoot, she is lured away from Frank by Bigfoot’s gifts and his primal manliness. Frank, upset at this turn of events, breaks into the radio studio and beheads the host, revealing–when the head keeps talking–that she is in fact a zombie. Frank then commandeers the microphone, and starts reporting on the real conspiracies and catastrophes of the day: the economy; climate change; etc.
Trailer for “Zombie Radio”
“Zombie Radio” is amusing enough in its sense of the ironic truth that the worst fears of conspiracy theorists pale in comparison to the real disasters occurring in the world. I think it might work well as a Pixar (or Python)-esque prelude or bonus clip to a feature film like Shaun of the Dead–it has the same understated British humor, and the colorful cinematography and cast ably convey a world that’s just slightly larger than life, supersaturated. Bigfoot, for example, is portrayed simply as a very large, unselfconscious man: John Candy playing “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. This realism–exaggerated, but realism nonetheless–gives the film’s ending some extra bite. What pulls the film through to that ending is an ensemble cast that collectively delivers the best performance of any of these films.
Planes de Futuro (“Future Plans”)
This is closer to what I hoped to see: a film where, I’d imagine, the limited budget dictated a focus on using qualities particular to film to generate interesting, economical storytelling. It has a storytelling technique that could only work in film. So we are again in black and white, although the setting here is a brighter, more airy bedroom. A young man, David, awakes from slumber, whereupon he’s startled by a somewhat older woman standing by the bed in a slinky black dress (here we go again). She reveals that she is Eva–and there’s that most SFnal name again–the girl who recently broke up with him, come from the future. But he does not believe her, and orders her from the room. And then we begin again with David awakening: this is a groundhog day story, facilitated by time travel. Eva must convince David that she is who she says she is, that something terrible will soon happen to him. And, with this terrible event unavoidably on the horizon, that she wants a child from him to remember him by. With each misstep, each unconvincing statement, she learns and adjusts her argument, and so the film is actually a very small set of lines and scenes repeated again and again. Not a film for the impatient: I heard some sighs from the audience as the film progressed and the repetitions piled up, although I myself thought the pacing well-judged and never grew bored. If the ending is not unexpected–a message of getting what you need, as opposed to getting what you thought you wanted–it is also not at all belabored, and well composed. The scene is bright, Eva’s slinky dress is gone, her hair is down, and the camerawork is evocative of the hazy, powerful state of half-conscious association, compared to the methodical quest for proof that had gone before.
After the previous films I was all set for “Solita” to be a robot version of Lolita. That at least might have been dangerous. Instead, the film opens with the Argo, a spaceship on a mission of exploration, whose crew has been lost but for a sole surviving man, David Pierce. Attempting to complete the ship’s mission, David sends an odd farewell message to his brother, sets the warp drive, and dons the virtual reality goggles that the crew use to pass the time during long spaceflights. The ship is not heard from again. A salvage/rescue mission is eventually launched–the space tug Solita–which includes David’s brother, Robert Pierce. After turning down an invitation from Solita’s lovely navigator Marta to pass the time in warp together, Robert instead dons the VR goggles during warp, as his brother David had done, and somehow catches a glimpse of David inside the forested VR world. The rescue tug emerges from warp, they find the lost ship, and Robert discovers David dead, still wearing VR goggles. Solita arranges to tow the lost ship home, and on the warp back, our man Robert again dons the goggles; at the journey’s close, he is discovered dead, still wearing them. The lovely navigator sobs, throwing herself upon his inert body. Then we shift back to the VR world, where Robert at last meets up with David at the edge of a large body of water (see: SAIL AWAY), ready to begin their journey into whatever happens next, together.
Trailer for “Solita”
Of these five films, “Solita” feels closest to Hollywood-style science fiction. Along with “Cosas Feas,” it is the film that uses the most special effects–holographic computer interfaces, exterior shots of spaceships–wrapped around a not-terribly-scientific story that would feel several decades old were it to appear as written science fiction. In terms of popular awareness, however, it may be quite topical–as I write this, Time magazine’s cover story is on transhumanism, and a “robot opera” on the theme is set to begin a national run. What “Solita” does reasonably well, as a bridge to these concerns, is a more down-to-Earth twisting and mixing of the natural and the synthetic, in a way that does seem to be increasingly happening in today’s world. The scenes of the “real world” in the film are those that will appear to the audience most obviously unreal: the ship moving through space; the very spare scenes of the ship’s interior–chairs around a table, a lounge chair–which might be sets for a minimalist stage play. On the other hand, the “virtual reality world” is set around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau’s temple of the natural, with its dense woods, chirping birds, sandy beach, and water lapping the shoreline. Which would seem to be stacking the deck, except there’s also some brief dialog where Solita’s crew sit around the table eating synthetic goop, commenting on how much they prefer it to older real foods. And in another scene, Marta comments that she has trouble telling her sleeping dreams from VR.
That sounds suggestive, but there’s nothing particularly complex going on here, no nested realities. What there is, is honest human confusion and uncertainty. The result is a film that’s endearingly and engagingly conveyed, if not in an especially meaty way. “Solita” can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a film about an individual character’s personal choice, or the broader pattern of choice factors that exist in its world, and so ends up feeling a little spare from both angles, a little simplistic. Yet by intent or coincidence, “Solita” does describe a certain trajectory in popular thought about the future–away from space, and to matters of authenticity in self and place. It comes across as almost meta-commentary on SF itself. On one hand, the choice made is a rejection of traditional genre SF tropes; on the other hand, the chosen VR realm is in a sense SF itself, an artificial world of expanded possibility. In Robert’s choice there’s thus a sense that SF may capture some important element of human life that cold and empty depictions of reality, however sleekly futuristic, do not; but tempered by the awareness of the wish-fulfillment potential of that expanded possibility, the awareness that it’s describing something not really there and so may be delusion-inducing. Humanity, the sense seems to be, needs a home, whether imaginary or not. And as compared to many big-budget Hollywood treatments of virtual reality and transhumanism, which tend to be monster stories advocating knowing one’s place, “Solita” earns points by its refusal to moralize about its choice made, for capturing something of the appeal of both sides.
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Trying to extrapolate trends and patterns from only five films is probably an exercise in trying too hard, but it is at least worth noting a few data points. In addition to being the only one of these science fiction films set in space, “Solita” is also the lone film set in the future (although “Planes de Futuro” does feature a character from the future). None of the films pass the Bechdel test; more of an issue is that there are no conversations between men and women that are not about sexual relationships, and there is only one woman whose character is not defined by her sexual pairing with a man (the exception is Eve’s best friend in “Time’s Up, Eve,” who of that film’s characters gets the least time on-screen). Unmarried sexual women–who seem to always be wearing black in these films–are portrayed at best as distractions; at worst they are soul-stealers. Quite possibly related to this, none of these films had women directors or writers. This may suggest that the limited number of women in Hollywood involved at a high level with SF films [edit 23 March 2011: as John Scalzi has picked up on] is unlikely to be bolstered by new blood any time soon, alas.
Given the “girl cooties” treatment of sexuality largely on display, it’s probably not surprising that ties of blood and the nuclear family are a frequent solace to the characters in these films. In “Solita” fraternal ties, and the chance to continue living life with an older brother, trump a possible romance. In “Cosas Feas” it is only Kriko’s family who are capable of looking out for him and providing him with what he needs. And in “Planes de Futuro” it is only when Eva sheds her image of seductress, and assumes the image and gestures of a mother caring for a young child, that she gains the inner peace she had sought.
So, science fiction as a genre for backward-looking mama’s boys, then? As a fan of SF I know this isn’t always the case, but I did have an uncomfortable sense of it, watching these films in succession. Given the frequent backward glances the films cast at science fiction’s history, what is scary to contemplate is that this “Dangerous Visions” suite of films on the Festival’s opening night was to be followed on the third night by a program of five more films collectively titled “Retro Speculatives.” I skipped it. I had expected a large, young crowd the opening Friday night of the Festival, what with media fandom being a big industry these days and Boston being the locus for so many colleges, high-tech companies, and increasingly for film-making and gaming companies. But after watching these short films, the sparsely-attended theater and the largely middle-aged attendees made more sense. This was a program that seemed designed for insiders, for people who wanted to belong to something, rather than for bringing in casual viewers who simply wanted to see intelligent and challenging films, and understood that such films would necessarily include science fiction. And yet some of these films can offer intelligence and challenge–although for me, only after I had mentally shaken off the associations between the films that the collective program had given me.