Sci-Fi-London 2013

A longer version of my S&S piece on genre outings at Sci-Fi-London 2013, including additional capsule reviews of Sado Tempest, Alter Egos, The Man From The Future and Dark By Noon.

For those who are alien to the genre scene, it can be all too tempting to dismiss out of hand the titles that make up the programme of the 12th Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film (aka Sci-Fi-London). Extra-terrestrials, the undead, superheroes, neural transfer, travel through time and space – on the face of it, such exotic topics might not appear fit for serious consideration from anyone besides the small but dedicated set of subcultural acolytes who attended the week’s showings. Yet through the resonant backdoor of metaphor and allegory, even the most out-there SF and fantasy can find ways of importing much more grounded materials into their frame, while of course adding the special pleasures of genre itself.

Indeed it was often possible, looking past many of these film’s genre trappings, to discern the themes, and even the narrative outlines, of other, decidedly more ‘arthouse’ titles. Abstract away, for example, from the revamped undead mythology to be found in Neil Jordan’s festival opener Byzantium (2012), and its story of two women fleeing abusive and dangerous men to the south coast of England bore a remarkable resemblance to Paul Andrew Williams’ London to Brighton (2006). What the vampiric frame added was a suggestion, from the perspective of this centuries-old mother-daughter team, of a long history of male abuse of women, which could be traced from the dilapidated present-day guesthouse (evocatively named Byzantium) that the women enterprisingly convert into a working brothel, all the way back to the actual ancient Byzantium from which one of their misogynistic pursuers originates. Patriarchy itself, it would seem, dies as hard as the blood-sucking old boys’ network perpetuated by the film’s male vampires, although as an alternative to this, the film’s two heroines come to embody different kinds of feminism and a different future. Meanwhile, the film’s not entirely reliable narrative is itself suitably Byzantine, stitched together from an interconnecting series of different people’s tales passed down as bedtime stories by a very young, inveterately mendacious mother (Gemma Arterton) to her imaginative, impressionable daughter (Saoirse Ronan) – with the horrific subtext of child prostitution, pre-teen pregnancy and paedophile rings carefully buried in more palatable fantasy.

Similarly in Adam Ciancio’s Vessel (2013), here in its world première, the story of a young man blessed – or cursed – with the gift to communicate with extraterrestrials at the expense of his own sense of identity is used as a way into issues of alienation, addiction and mental illness. As protagonist Ash (Mark Diaco) shuffled between health professionals, old flames and ex-junky friends in his desperate attempt to negotiate a path between the promising person that he used to be and the soulless wreck that he has since become, it was hard not to think of Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet (1963) or Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st (2011). That said, mumbling, mopey Ash makes for a singularly unengaging protagonist, so that the film feels as though it were stretching time as much as space – even if its use of interstitial urban locations (car parks, alleyways, buildings under construction) is both striking and well-suited to a study of a man falling between the cracks.

Shorter (in both perceived and actual time) and altogether weirder and wittier, multimedia artist Shezad Dawood’s feature debut Piercing Brightness (2013) also earns its genre credentials through extraterrestrial themes – but in reimagining Preston as a haven for space visitors with integration issues, it manages to say as much about immigration and assimilation as any more grounded exodus drama, while also serving as a psychedelic city symphony that shows the quotidian sights of Lancashire’s County Town through thoroughly alien eyes. The different film stocks, colour filters, and jump-cutting breaches of chronology all add to this defamiliarising effect, although everything is brought back down to earth by some slyly banal humour.

In Dead Weight (2011), a nationwide outbreak in the US transforms those infected into flesh-eating killers, driving slacker Charlie (impressive newcomer Joe Belknap) to get off his couch in Toledo, Ohio and trek on foot to Wausau, Wisconsin, where he desperately hopes to catch up with Samantha (Mary Lindberg), the girlfriend he has promised to meet there. So this UK première appears, at least at its beginning, to be treading the all too familiar path of the zombie survival thriller – yet first-time feature-makers Adam Bartlett and John Pata keep their anthropophagous infected almost entirely off-screen, preferring more human monsters.

Accordingly, the film’s focus instead becomes Charlie’s difficult dynamic with his fellow travellers and the other uninfected people that he encounters along the way, as well as his troubled relationship with Samantha (shown in reverse-order flashbacks that punctuate the film). Charlie’s intended destination is clear from the outset, but once the direction of the narrative has hit – and when it does, it hits hard – we end up in dark territories previously occupied not just by other post-apocalyptic fare, but also by Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010) and even Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer (2012). The whole world may be falling apart, but what we witness is one would-be lover’s moral breakdown, which resonates far more deeply than the ambient genre mayhem here wisely relegated to the film’s background.

A random selection of 80 people of different ages, abilities and ethnicities happens to be on the same American street block one sunny afternoon, when they find themselves suddenly transported to a large, drab-looking arena where they are instructed (by their own voices, heard in their heads) to race one another or die. The Human Race (2012) presents the conflicts between our basic survival instincts and more complicated ethical systems in a Darwinian contest that is unnervingly stage-managed as a video game for unknown observers. The gladiatorial set-up might recall Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man (1987) or Fukasaku Kinji’s Battle Royale (2000), with just a hint of Nimrod Antal’s Predators (2010), but The Human Race is better than all of these thanks to its solid focus on characterisation and moral choice, as well as on broader theological/cosmological questions about our place in the universe. It is not as sociopolitically rooted as, say, Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971), but this visceral feature debut from writer/director Paul Hough remains a bleak and often bloody portrait of humanity as a plaything for drives and forces beyond its comprehension or control.

Not everything at the festival was quite as successful. As an adaptation of Shakespeare, Sado Tempest (Arashi, 2012) ought to have come with its appeal readymade, but despite a transposition to Japan’s Sado Island, the addition of elements from Noh theatre, and the inclusion of a Japanese rock band amongst its cast, John Williams’ film is repetitive and dull – not unlike the magical ‘Demon Song’ that rebel singer/guitarist Juntoku and mad Miranda sing ad nauseam throughout.

Jordan Galland’s live-action superhero comedy Alter Egos (2012) lifts its central concept (superheroes struggle to find a place in a world from which they have eradicated crime) straight from Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) – but while it is understandable that budgetary considerations should prevent this low-key indie from achieving the spectacular scale of its Pixar alter ego, with Galland instead foregrounding his characters’ banality, unfortunately this film also lacks the wit, charm and panache of Brad Bird’s writing, and so suffers greatly from the inevitable comparison.

Likewise the two time-travelling films on the programme were in thrall to a pair of previous, better films. Cláudio Torres’ The Man From the Future (O Homem do Futuro, 2011), in its UK première, apes the comic paradoxes of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy (especially 1989’s Part II) in a new Brazilian milieu, but its star Wagner Moura (Elite Squad) seems uncomfortable in a never-serious rôle that soon gives way to uninvolving romantic melodrama, while many of the film’s lines simply fall flat. With its three-times-through structure and its view of human destiny as immutable, The Man From The Future is also heavily indebted to Nacho Vigalondo’s masterful Timecrimes (2007), but is too lumberingly amiable to exploit the deep moral unease inherent in this theme.

That task fell instead to Alan Leonard & Michael O’Flaherty’s festival closer Dark by Noon (2013), a futurist noir whose protagonist, Rez (Patrick Buchanan), keeps trying to secure a better future for himself, his estranged daughter and the city that he knows is about to be destroyed, by travelling forwards – and eventually backwards too – in a prototype time machine. It is an Oedipal plot in which Rez’s every well-intended choice to evade a bleak future only seems to bring that future closer – and a recurring image of our questionable hero washing blood from his hands brings home the film’s ethical interests, while post-millennial anxieties about terrorism and economic chicanery also find their way into the film’s increasingly convoluted weft. Yet for all its ambitions and undeniable visual style, Dark By Noon is plagued by go-nowhere subplots and loose-end ambiguities that seem more confused than purposeful or worth exploring retrospectively. For its world première, Dark By Noon was presented in a directors’ cut that the directors themselves suggested (in the subsequent Q&A) might never be shown to the public again. It is to be hoped that the leaner studio version will also be more coherent.

Unfortunately I missed, amongst others, Kristina Buozyte’ Vanishing Waves (2012), A.J. Bond’s Stress Position (2013) and Brea Grant’s Best Friends Forever (2013), but my favourite film of the festival – and easily one of my favourite films of the year – proved to be Martin Villeneuve’s Mars et Avril (2012), an oneiric ‘space opera’ of a kind that, had he had access to CGI, no doubt Cocteau would have made (he is duly name-checked in Villeneuve’s script).

So much in this film is vibrantly original and odd. After all, how many future-set films exist that are in no way dystopian, that feature not a single moment of violence, and that have a 75-year-old virgin musician as their hero? This last is Jacob Obus (Jacques Languirand), whose unique instruments are all designed by his younger friend Arthur Spaak (Paul Ahmarani) in imitation of the female form (like a more benign if no less surreal variation of the “mutant tools for mutant women” in fellow-Canadian David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers). A photographer named Avril (Caroline Dhavernas) agrees to model for one of their instruments if in turn they will each model for her own art, “focusing”, as she says, “on important themes: life, death, time, space, nothingness.”

In the love triangle that ensues, all these themes – and eros too – will play out in a wondrous, melancholic dance that echoes and retunes the harmony of the universe as theorised by Arthur’s father, the “experimental cosmologist”, inventor and hologram Eugène (Robert LePage). With its robot bartenders, dream machines, teleportation devices, missions to Mars and sleek steampunk sets, Villeneuve’s astonishing debut has all the furnishings of science fiction, yet in breaking down the barriers between science, art, philosophy and religion, becomes something much more than a mere genre piece. For it is a meta-cosmo-poem with musical accompaniment, photographic imagery and much male longing and loneliness – which makes it a pioneering exploration of the outer limits not just of Canadian filmmaking in particular (which has never before produced something so grandly rich and strange) and cinema in general, but also of the SF and fantasy genres themselves, here made to accommodate the broadest of human concerns.

© Anton Bitel