First published by Sight & Sound
13th Sci-Fi-London: the London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, 24 April-4 May 2014
2014 is a big year for science fiction in the UK. In August, for the first time since 1965, the annual World Science Fiction Convention will be taking place in London – and later the BFI will be hosting a ‘blockbuster’ season dedicated to the genre (along the lines of last year’s Gothic survey).
Yet as this year’s Sci-Fi-London demonstrated, bigger need not mean better, and the size of a film’s budget, or the celebrity of its cast, is less important than the scale of its ideas. Science fiction has always been difficult to define, and Sci-Fi-London does its best to expand the genre’s already broad boundaries, but ideas remain at its core – and ideas, it seems, can get by, even thrive, within very modest accommodation.
This principle was borne out by several otherwise very different festival movies that confine their ideas to the most enclosed of settings, favour suggestive sound design over whizzbang visual effects, and prefer relatable human monstrosity to genre monsters.
For example, Christoph Behl’s Zombie Desert (also – and better – known as The Desert) shifts the ravenous undead to its margins, instead focusing on the psychological and moral decay of three survivors trapped together in a well-protected house – and in a dysfunctional, deteriorating ménage à trois. The result is an intense Sartrean character drama, rather than just another low-budget zombie flick.
The prime location for Greg Jackson’s Bunker 6 is an authentic ‘Diefenbunker’ or Emergency Government Headquarters, one of Canada’s erstwhile nuclear blast bunkers. Its oppressively claustrophobic corridors are made to accommodate two very different ‘alternative realities’: a parallel twentieth century where full-scale nuclear war broke out during the Cuban Missile Crisis – and a more psychological space that a very small group of survivors has created as a mechanism to cope with the ensuing years of underground isolation.
And an apartment complex encompasses all the events of Bradley King’s Time Lapse, in which three roommates discover, aimed directly at their living-room window, a missing neighbour’s device that takes accurate photographs one day into the future. Cue a paradox-filled, reflexive plot in which the trio attempt to manipulate, then to escape the device’s visual prophecies – a process which finds them acting much like a cast rehearsing scenes from fixed storyboards, even as they struggle desperately to rewrite the script.
Even lower budget was Rob Grant’s Desolate, shot for under $10,000 over three years’ worth of weekends with no screenplay and no crew (bar the director himself). Grant’s own high-rise apartment also serves as that of depressed, lovelorn Chad (Jez Bonham), who either witnesses or fantasises from his window an unfolding alien apocalypse that throws into relief the destructive dynamics of his most important (human) relationships. Grant’s editing is the real hero here, piecing together many close-ups into an impressionistic mosaic of delusion, distraction and deep damage as, one way or another, Chad’s world comes to an end.
My personal favourite of these ‘claustrophobic’ films was Antonio Tublén’s LFO: the Movie. It never leaves the interiors of the suburban Swedish home where obsessive sound technician Robert (Patrik Karlson), after being left by his wife and son, discovers a particular low frequency oscillation which opens the mind of anyone who hears it to irresistible mesmeric suggestion.
Aware that “in the wrong hands, this could produce disastrous consequences”, Robert embarks on a series of private experiments with the couple next door as his pliable guinea pigs, all as part of a plan to “change the world… from the inside.” Robert’s own horizons, however, are so limited, and his psychological and moral makeup so deeply flawed, that he is perhaps not best qualified for this new role as God. Tublén’s wryly banalised, tone-perfect scenario builds with disorienting humour to a bleak, thought-provoking close that suggests it is ultimately impossible to escape one’s own darkest interiors.
My two other festival favourites also involved characters playing God. Like (but also quite unlike) Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005) before it, Christian Carroll’s wonderfully titled Suicide or Lulu and Me in a World Made for Two is a very free adaptation of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1940 SF novel The Invention of Morel.
Jittery mad-scientist-cum-artist Jorge (played by Carroll) uses a goggle-like device to feed memories of a Parisian romance to his confused guest (Adeline Thery), a mute Louise Brooks lookalike. But does Jorge’s footage reveal who she really is, or just who Jorge wants her to be? In the film’s artificial monochrome world, inflected with the stylisations of German Expressionism and the French New Wave, reality proves an elusive concept less desirable than fantasy.
Meanwhile, in the alternative reality of Darren Paul Fisher’s OXV: the Manual (aka Frequencies), the contrasting conditions of high-‘frequency’, super-lucky Marie and low-‘frequency’, luckless Zak (played by different actors at different ages) mean that they cannot be together for more than a minute per year or disaster will quickly ensue. Throughout school they have brief annual encounters as ‘experiments’, never fully appreciating one another’s motives or understanding that there is a third party playing with them like fish in a bowl.
Fisher’s intelligent and imaginative narrative revisits key scenes from different, ever wider perspectives – and will leave viewers mentally revisiting them for days afterwards as they try to disentangle what is at once a star-crossed romance, an allegory of (class) discord and (musical) harmony, and a theological investigation into nature and nurture, free will and determinism. It’s out there, alright – and there’s nothing else out there quite like it.
The mighty fall
Juan Solanas’ festival closer Upside Down (2013) is superficially similar to OXV in its concern with a pair of lovers kept apart by fantastic circumstances, but it’s let down by, well, science – as well as by a weak script that seems uncertain whether its audience is adult or teenaged.
A grating fairytale voiceover at the film’s opening emphasises the real physical possibility of a bi-planetary world whose divided inhabitants live in – and are forever stuck with – their opposed gravitational systems. The problem is that the physics here are patently ridiculous, and there is likewise no viable chemistry between stars Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst.
The budget, perhaps the biggest of any film in this year’s festival, is put to good use turning high concept to glossy spectacle, but it’s not enough. It doesn’t help that Yoshiura Yasuhiro’s Patema Inverted, screening in the festival’s anime all-nighter, generates much greater sense – and a much more vertiginous feeling of peril – from a very similar idea.
Size, evidently, isn’t everything. Another big-hitter that disappointed was Mood Indigo, starring big names Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, and directed by celebrated genre eccentric Michel Gondry. Adapted from Boris Vian’s 1947 surrealist novel L’Écume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream), and crammed with the sort of lo-fi sight gags and in-camera trickery familiar from Gondry’s previous The Science of Sleep (2006) and Be Kind Rewind (2007), this is a bright, breezy love story that ends in disease, poverty and death – but the film’s own exhausting mannerisms makes it very hard to care. There are conceits aplenty, but not enough underlying substance or believable characters to render all the wild whimsy attractive or even endurable.
Mournful manipulations and transcendental trash
Weirder adventures were undertaken on lower budgets. Yaël André’s counterfactually titled When I Will Be Dictator combines carefully edited found footage, intertitles and her own personal if abstract voiceover to create an experimental documentary poem that explores the boundaries between others’ recorded memories and one’s own reality. She first tells the true story of her (pseudonymous) friend’s madness and suicide, and then invents other lives and alternative worlds, all illustrated by seven decades’ worth of appropriated amateur Super 8 and 8mm film on which she projects her own unresolved feelings of guilt and loss.
In one creepily uncanny sequence, André overdubs a filmed conversation between partygoers to transform it into a chorus-like commentary on her own film’s preoccupations. Later she will even show her borrowed footage in loops, or spooling backwards – these manipulations all in pursuit of fleeting moments of happiness, or to reverse tragedies that ultimately can be undone only in her and the viewer’s imaginations. This melancholic oddity may be slow to start, but once it gets going it offers many peculiar insights into film and fantasy; it also manages to be very moving, despite or perhaps because of its overt artifice.
Still, it was Gregg Golding’s debut Struggled Reagans which earned the prize for the most uncategorisable of the festival’s films (and, aptly enough, the most unparsable of its titles). As six young adults acquire bizarre special powers – and spandex costumes – they unite to fight off a giant floating tumour born of their own collective trauma. They also spend a lot of time fucking, ice-skating and growing vegetables on an allotment.
Drawing from a disparate mélange of sources (1980s sit-coms, Hindu mythology, television’s tokusatsu genre), tweaking the film’s backgrounds with cheap digital psychedelic effects and accumulating free-associative ideas with disorienting speed, Struggled Reagans is horny, lysergic and postmodern, reconfiguring its Power Rangers-style ensemble heroics as both priapic trash and transcendental parable. The performances are broad, the sound mix is terrible, the onscreen actions are downright offensive – but this is also outsider auteurism at its most audacious. Once again, Sci-Fi-London should be commended for championing the little guy with the big ideas.