Should I stay or should I go?: existential quests & grounded escapes at Sci-Fi-London 2019

Should I stay or should I go?: existential quests & grounded escapes at Sci-Fi-London 2019 first published by Sight & Sound

Three picks from Sci-Fi-London 2019, 15-22 May: The Final Land; After We Leave; Fonotune: An Electric Fairytale

Among the 17 features (including five world premières and two documentaries) that are screening at this year’s edition of Sci-Fi-London, there is a great deal of eclecticism and variation. For example, I adore both the evolutionary atavism of Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect (2018) and the dark apocalypse of Wen Ren’s Last Sunrise (2019), even if they pull in opposite directions, the one heading backwards and inwards into a damaged man’s gene pool, the other forwards and outwards into the reconfigured stars. This tension gets played both ways in three more of my favourite films from the festival, all of which explore the Janus-like polarity of onwards and upwards vs backwards and downwards.

The Final Land (Das letzte Land, 2019)

“I’ve never seen a ship that was crappier than this one,” says Novak (Milan Pešli), shortly after he finds the prison escapee Adem (Torben Föllmer) on board the grounded vessel during a desert storm. Spacecraft are of course a sci-fi staple, and have often, since the Millennium Falcon of the original Star Wars (1977) or the Nostromo of Alien (1979), been dusty, drippy workspaces rather than sleek, perfectly clean cruisers. Even so, Novak’s initial assessment of the vessel in Marcel Barion’s The Final Land (Das Letzte Land) as a ‘wreck’ seems largely accurate. For the two men’s attempts to get it vaguely shipshape involve the use of wrench, pliers and wet rags rather than precision instruments, and once it is airborne, their time spent aboard is as much an exploration of its messy, secretive interiors as of outer space. 

This ship comes with a history. Previously, as indeed now, it had a crew of two, and as Adem and off-lander Novak try to work out where, with the whole universe before them, they themselves should head, they become divided between Adem’s nostalgic desire to return to their predecessors’ provenance (the legendary ‘Earth’), and Novak’s insistence that they should “go further and further and deeper into” the destination whose maddening siren call evidently led to their predecessors’s downfall. It is an existential question – head back or move on – and The Final Land, which confines itself mostly to the spaceship, becomes more and more about these two lost souls’ inner space, as they go on a conflicted quest for freedom, home, escape and mother. The film itself had a similarly small crew, with the versatile Barion not just taking on the duties of director and writer, cinematographer and editor, but also helping with the score, production and sound design, visual and special effects. This feature debut, reducing space exploration to the womb of a spaceship (and to the uterine passages of a planet’s cave), is not too shabby after all, suggesting that Barion could go anywhere next.

After We Leave (2019) World Première

Jack Chaney (Brian Silverman) has returned to Los Angeles after leaving both his wife Vanessa and his criminal partner Eric (Clay Wilcox) in the lurch there some years earlier. As the world succumbs slowly to environmental degradation, depletion of resources and increasing crime and chaos on the streets, the best hope is to travel to the off-world colonies – and, undeserving as he may be, our antihero has been selected for a coveted couple’s visa with Vanessa, and so Jack is back, hoping to be reconciled with his ex. Yet he also quickly returns to old habits – an affair with the adoring Lexi (Anita Leeman), more illegal enterprises with Eric – raising the question of whether he merits redemption or his place in heaven. 

Opening with Jack in a wide open field watching three rockets take off in the distance, writer/director Aleem Hossain’s feature debut After We Leave always keeps its sci-fi touches in the background while focusing on its protagonist’s moral makeup. Jack wants to save himself and Vanessa, and desperately pursues a dream of change and a better life, but remains grounded by his own flaws, and his habit of bringing down everyone around him. With his head in the clouds but his feet in the gutter, Jack is on a tragic journey of self-discovery, realising where his brand of destructive toxicity properly belongs. His ultimate dilemma, leaving him unable either to go back or to move forward or ever to do what is right for other people, is deftly handled and moving, ensuring that Hossain’s ‘one last job’ scenario, for all its futurist gizmos (temple phones, paralytic implants, etc.), stays down to earth.

Fonotune: An Electric Fairytale (2018)

“Well, that was pointless,” says Analog (Kazushi Watanabe) very near the end of Fonotune: An Electric Fairytale. “Gotta find something new to do.”

It is a neat enough summary of a film in which a disparate group of taciturn characters crosses paths on their quest to witness the ‘last cosmic gig’ from ‘the loudest rockstar of his time’ Blitz (the legendary Guitar Wolf) before (maybe) the end of the world – and yet in this strange, circular narrative, pointlessness becomes its own aesthetic. All the travellers here wear prominent headphones with antennae, and are tuned into the last radio station still running, FNTN. Its flamboyant DJ, Radio (Yusuke Yamasaki), insists that all you need for happiness “is the right song and the right girl.” He provides the eclectic playlist, orchestrating the search of these slow-walking lost souls for happiness, truth, companionship, whatever. 

Never uttering so much as a word or showing an emotional response to anything, the deadpan protagonist is photographer Mono, played by Bavarian FINT, appearing here in his feature debut as writer/director. The rest of the cast – including hooker Stereo (Yuho Yamashita) and biker Bubblegum (Kiki Sukezane) – is, like the dialogue, mostly Japanese. Meanwhile the locations are all Berlin brutalism or Utah desert – wide-open spaces of emptiness and alienation that perfectly frame these players on their existential odyssey. 

Shot wide and blank by DP Jon Britt (Yellow), Fonotune: An Electric Fairytale is mesmerising in its austere beauty, recalling the bleak cool of early Jim Jarmusch, or perhaps of a hipster music video. As rockets are seen in the background taking off towards a new future, FINT’s film is furnished with the left-behind accoutrements of our culture’s recent past – cassette tapes, laser discs, film-roll cameras, LPs, even rock and roll itself. This ‘retro’ spirit extends to the way the film casually objectifies its female characters. For while, with its striking visual framing, stark colour contrasts and lack of conventional characterisation, this is certainly, unabashedly cinéma du look, only women are ever seen naked (or made an explicit part of Radio’s recipe for happiness). This, however, seems part of a broader strategy in a film that makes a point of unearthing the obsolescent items and attitudes of a dying world – and of a destructive mode of masculinity, embodied by Blitz and his scorched-earth attitude towards art. The pointlessness is the point – and FINT leaves us to locate our own meaning in these endless, apocalyptic wanderings, while providing very pretty pictures – and some banging tunes – as our viaticum.

© Anton Bitel