First published by Sight & Sound
The very label ‘science fiction’ speaks of a collision between bounded realities and less bounded speculations – and while this broadest of genres can certainly accommodate all manner of spectacular actions and space operas, it is often at its best when privileging big ideas. So here is a preview of some of the more cerebrally inclined entries in this year’s Sci-Fi-London – films that present a cinematic stage for thought experiments and philosophical enquiry.
Take Marc Lahore’s The Open. Though set amidst a long-running global war, the film keeps combat at its periphery while placing at its centre a strange oasis of improbable pacifism. For while battle planes roar over a bleak, wintry shoreline, a grief-driven coach and two traumatised tennis pros insist on ignoring the surrounding mayhem, and instead mime out a constructed, rule-bound scenario of peace-time normality: a mixed-sex tennis tournament without racket strings, balls or even an audience, reminiscent of the final scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1996). As the two shell-shocked players gradually fall in love, and the stakes, for all their wilful emptiness, intensify, the film presents an alternative, entirely fictive form of conflict resolution in the face of mass, mutually assured destruction. On this court of the imagination there remain deep scars and much collateral damage – though Lahore’s message would appear to be make (two) love, not war.
Likewise concerned with game-playing, albeit far less visually austere, Samuel Schwarz and Julian M. Grünthal’s hyper-stylised Polder riffs lysergically on the eXistenZ-ial conundrums raised by a new immersive videogame whose chimerical characters and settings are hard to distinguish from non-virtual reality, even as they simultaneously mirror and mask the horrors of their developers’ exploitative commercial activities. As Ryuko (Nina Fog) searches these disorienting digital landscapes for her lost husband – and the game’s creator – Marcus (Christoph Bach), we end up in a bleak locked-room mystery unfolding in a locked mind.
There are several more variations on the locked-room mystery at this year’s festival. Gaurav Seth’s Prisoner X examines the post-9/11 global climate by showing a battle of wits between a CIA agent and a time-travelling, miracle-working POW who has, over the 15 years since his 2002 capture, somehow been influencing a global terrorist revolution from deep within the confines of his isolated high-security cell. It has a few too many twists for my tastes, pushing its already overdetermined plot beyond all grounded credulity, but its point about the bunkered politics of fear is well made.
Superficially similar, if much better, is Travis Milloy’s dystopian Somnio (aka Infinity Chamber), in which Frank Lerner (Christopher Soren Kelly) awakens to find himself in high-tech solitary confinement, with, for his sole company, the disembodied voice of his chirpy Life Support Officer Howard (Jesse D. Arrow) by day, and the dreamt-up half-memory of cafe barista Gabby (Cassandra Clark) by night. As, over the passing years, Frank searches both his limited environment and his looping subconscious for a way out of straitened – and gradually deteriorating – circumstances, Milloy locks him in a clever merger of Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011). Here the narrative pieces all fall eventually into satisfying place, while the film’s careful segregation of mind and body still leaves room for escapist ambiguity in the end.
A different kind of trap is depicted in Johnny and Leonora Moore’s Made In Taiwan, in which experimental filmmaker Jack (Alexander Jeremy) anonymously releases a new kind of feature that induces narcotic reveries in its viewers, only to find that his films’ popularity attracts piracy and criminal takeover even as his own overexposure to their hallucinogenic material is undermining his sense of self. The resulting Videodrome update is a self-reflexive paranoia piece concerned all at once with the shrinking place of the auteur/artist in the public release and ‘ownership’ of a movie, with the death of film in the digital age, and with the potentially dangerous repercussions of an art form that encourages narcissistic addictions and heady flights from reality.
Other films put the philosophy of mind and identity through genre’s paces. In Justin Bull’s Merge, for example, when adolescents in a small Vermont school start ingesting mind-altering (and crudely hacked) nanotechnology to improve their test grades, there are unforeseen consequences as their mental and emotional states blur into one, heralding a new stage in human evolution. Presented as a teen movie whose near-future technologies are grounded by snowy Vermont locations and kids just being kids, Bull’s film speculates on what the next step might be in the social media-led race towards group think and hive mind, and on how peer group pressure and even mental illness might come to bear on any collective consciousness.
Simon Pummell’s Identicals posits a future where a shadowy company will help you become a ‘Brand New-U’ (the film’s original title), just so long as you are willing to kill your own past and never look back. After his girlfriend Nadia (Nora Lane-Noone), hoping to extract herself from their imperfect relationship, half-heartedly makes arrangements with the organisation for a new identity, Slater (Lachlan Nieboer) finds himself the chief suspect in her (apparent) murder, and has little choice but to flee into his own new life – but he proves unable to put Nadia behind him, and so, in order to win her back, he must come into violent confrontation with his other, equally conflicted parallel selves. With its SF concepts always remaining only vaguely defined, Identicals is best regarded as an extended metaphor exploring not only the adaptability, but also the continuity, demanded of personal identity by radically changing circumstances. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) reimagined as a coolly elegant, noir-shaded thriller – although perhaps don’t expect too much coherence or sense from it.
If Identicals is concerned with the multiple variant identities that make up a self, Gene Ivery’s Tourbillon is instead preoccupied with the strange fixity of identity that comes with immortality. Ever since a genetic experiment in 1932 left Daniela (Cortney Palm) stuck in her youth, she has, over the passing decades, lost all sense of passion and purpose – a condition not helped by the sheltered existence she has been encouraged to lead by a family that may not always have her best interests at heart. Presented with the possibility of both an outside lover and an antidote to her everlasting life, Daniela is not sure who she can trust as she must make what is her first momentous decision in a very long time. Again, as with Identicals, there are the barebones of genre furnishings (world-changing science, cloak-and-dagger intrigue, dynastic tragedy) on offer here, but for the most part Tourbillon is more interested in viewing the ephemerality of human endeavour from the perspective of eternity. Ivery shoots Daniela’s experience with a naturalism that matches the quotidian quality found in her audio diary entries, while simultaneously capturing her ever-adolescent disconnection from the norms of chronology through a fragmentary, time-leaping narrative structure (even if our last glimpse of Daniela has her walking a linear path into an unknown and possibly endless future).
I’ve reserved my two festival favourites till last. If Blade Runner (1982), in its various cuts, has proved to be one of science-fiction cinema’s most influential works on memory and mortality, then Ion de Sosa’s Androids Dream, drawn from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 source novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, represents a strikingly improbable reimagining. The year may, as text at the beginning baldly states, be 2052, but Androids Dream has been shot on outmoded 16mm and in concomitant, decidedly oldschool academy ratio – and its urban location is not some gaudy future-noir metropolis, but the very recognisable high-rise of Benidorm, a once modernist city which has already seen better days. Here everything comes inscribed with a use-by date – and as the camera, pursuing a style mid-way between city-symphony documentary and family video, tracks ordinary people (workers, shoppers, a gay would-be smuggler, a young family) engaged in mundane activities, we see them shot down, one by one and without mercy, by a bounty hunter (Manolo Marín) eager to purchase for himself one of the last sheep in existence. “What if it dies? What guarantee do I have?”, our murderous antihero asks the animal saleswoman, in words that resonate across time and space with Blade Runner‘s repeated line, “It’s a shame she won’t live – but then again, who does?” It is a memento mori in a film where death comes, swiftly and suddenly, to everyone, and where the future represents little fundamental advance on the past.
© Anton Bitel