Sci-Fi-London 2023

Inner and outer spaces: Sci-Fi-London 2023

Inner and outer spaces: Sci-Fi-London 2023 first published by SciFiNow in separate parts – 31 May, 1 June, 2 June, 3 June, 4 June, 5 June, 6 June – but here reunified into a single preview piece as originally written

Includes capsules of: UFO Sweden, Phi 1.618, Cade: The Tortured Crossing, Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, Once Upon A Time In the Future: 2121, Ozma, The Warm Season (aka Alien Intervention), The Great Glitch/Children of Paradise, The Elderly, WintertideThe Eye and the Wall, RemoteThe Bystanders

Sci-Fi-London is back to planet earth once more. Its 23rd incarnation, spread over several cinemas in Central London, boasts 13 new features, 19 shorts, and a special retrospective screening of Peter Watkins’ post-nuclear faux documentary The War Game (1966) with a new live score. The eclectic programme includes films not just from the US, Canada and the UK, but also from Sweden, Bulgaria, Turkey, Denmark, Spain and Guatemala – and all are out of this world. 

Here be aliens, ghosts, pandemics, unworldy invertebrates and artificial intelligences, oppressive dystopias, unnerving apocalypses and glitchy alternative universes, lost youth and the discarded elderly. My personal top picks are Cory McAbee’s Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences and Søren Peter Langkjær Bojsen’s The Great Glitch/Children of Paradise, but really every carefully curated title on offer has something rich and strange for lovers of genre – and of whatever lies beyond genre.

UFO Sweden (2022)

It is 1996 in Norrköping, Sweden – eight years after Uno Stjärne (Oscar Töringe) disappeared, leaving his research group UFO Sweden, friend Lennart (Jesper Barkselius) and young daughter Denise in the lurch. Now Denise (Inez Dahl Torhaug) is a delinquent teen hacker in foster care – and when Uno’s empty car plummets through the roof of a remote barn, she is determined to prove right Uno’s wild theories about weather patterns and wormholes, and to discover his fate. 

Denise’s quest for daddy, or at least for family, aligns with UFO Sweden’s sceptical search for anything out there – and so Victor Danell’s good-natured retro adventure, complete with car chases, corporate infiltrations, and a red Saab 90 in place of a DeLorean, lets a disparate ensemble of dreamers look to the stars, leap through time and find each other. “We foil-hatted freaks stick together,” Denise will tell Lennart, in words that will ring true for any sci-fi-festival audience. 

Phi 1.618 (2022)

“Where is it? Where has time gone?”, asks Krypton (Deyan Donkov) in animator Theodore Ushev’s feature debut.

Certainly time operates mysteriously in this post-apocalyptic retrofuturist sci-fi. Timepieces are used to create chronic disorder (the ‘Chaotic Clock’), or to assassinate (the ‘strangle watch’). Krypton himself defies the ravages of time, as one of 666 immortal, all-male ‘bio-titans’ engineered for a fascist mission to leave the dying planet. As the countdown for liftoff ticks away, Krypton joins Gargara (Martina Apostolova), the embodiment of a forbidden book, to gather scattered ingredients for a magical drug that will reawaken Phia (Irmena Chichikova), a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ abducted and preserved in ‘timeless’ cryostasis as the sole female specimen for the space mission’s archive. 

Combining modern filmmaking methods with the inter-titled stylings of Metropolis-era dystopia and Soviet agitprop-aping animated sequences, this eschatological fairytale sends Krypton on a quest for a happily ever after where ephemerality brings its own timeless bliss. 

Cade: The Tortured Crossing (2023)

“Am I dreaming?”, asks Tim (Eric Lum). “Where am I? What just happened?”

Tim is a patient in a run-down mental hospital whose renovation the messianic, superpowered philanthropist Cade Altier has agreed to finance. Meanwhile Cade’s estranged, ailing twin Cale is helping to abduct and traffic patients for illegal gene editing experiments, in exchange for access to the results. Both brothers are played by Neil Breen, even as Cade occasionally splits into multiple versions of himself to even the odds in fights. Breen too is a polyhyphenate artist, serving all at once as writer, director, DP, editor, producer and many other rôles, in a film where dualisms and divided realities reign.

The viewer will share Tim’s confusion about what is real, as characters are green-screened not just into sub-Matrix battles, but even into the most banal of locations. There are weird cutaways, jarring sound drops, unmotivated freeze frames, oddly recurring lines, bizarre dance sequences, a randomly appearing white tiger that transforms into a ghostly woman in white (Jennifer Estrella) – and it all comes with the dissociative, dislocating feel of a drawn-out dream, or perhaps of a parable of the endless, interdimensional conflict between good and evil. 

Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences (2022)

“So my friends and I have a bet.” says Rudy (Rudy Dejesus), as he approaches a peculiar woman wearing pink rubber gloves in a bar. “They said you’re a robot. Are you a robot?”

Grace (played by Michi Muzyka, voiced by Meredith Adelaide) is a robot, due shortly to be sent into space as a ‘representative of human nature’ – but before she goes, she wishes to engage in conversation with a real live human like Rudy. Grace wants to talk about performer Cory McAbee (also the film’s writer/director, and a regular guest of Sci-Fi-London since his 2001 feature debut The American Astronaut) and his associates, and so her discussion incorporates several of McAbee’s live performances, whose humour, poetry and profound questions also permeate this film.

Encompassing the distinction between hard scientific facts and romantic truths, artificial time travel, transdimensionalism, and the way that ideas (including the many ideas thrown into the air by this film itself) can take root and be realised, it is a thoughtful, reflexive, funny series of standup routines, palatable lectures, faux advertisements and eccentric songs, as well as an impossible love letter full of hope for humanity in a vast universe.

Once Upon A Time In The Future: 2121 (Bir Zamanlar Gelecek: 2121, 2022)

The very title of Serpil Altin’s feature debut is also a statement of intent for this fairytale set in the future. Here families, forced underground by ecological disaster on the surface, are dependent on a System whose once revolutionary nature has led to built-in strife. Here, amid constant scarcity, Younger Generations are idolised, Middle Generations are tolerated for their labour and childrearing, and Older Generations are disposable, with the eldest member of a family killed and harvested for organs every time a newborn arrives. 

When a woman (Selen Öztürk) has an unplanned pregnancy, her husband (Çagdas Onur Öztürk) and daughter (Sukeyna Kiliç) are rather more delighted than the grandmother (Ayseni Samlioglu). In her youth, grandma had helped set up the System, but now her only hope is to pass on her own spirit of rebelliousness to her daughter and granddaughter, even if they have, to differing degrees, become indoctrinated by a regime that will ultimately murder them. Think Logan’s Run, in subterranean bunkers, surreally allegorising the inter-generational tensions in any ‘happy’ family. Meanwhile the apple with which the film opens and closes marks this underground world as both hermetic Eden and entrapping dystopia where true happiness lies beyond the bounds.

Ozma (2023)

“Every night I wake up, or something wakes me up, and I have that same sense of disorientation.” 

Jeff (Ferdy Roberts) conducts this imaginary conversation with his late wife Chloe (Alice Margaroli), from whose loss he is still reeling – but in the wee hours of this night, Jeff will wake to find, outside his East London home, a ‘hyper-evolved shape-shifting jellyfish’ called Ozma (and voiced by Eva Magyar) who, having commandeered Jeff’s internal monologue via telepathy, asks him to transport her to the Thames before her alien pursuers (Jun Noh, Victoria Moseley), disguised as police on bikes and armed with cucumbers, can seize her. 

Writer/director Keith John Adams’ monochrome feature debut tracks our unlikely hero as he, still in his dressing gown, cycles across nocturnal London – or at least dreams that he does – on a surreal mission that is accompanied by various impossibly intradiegetic musicians playing instruments as varied as the krar, the dulcimer and the shakuhachi, as well as more traditional jazz combos. It is all at once city symphony, Egyptological noir, oneiric odyssey and heady tale of psychic healing.

The Warm Season (aka Alien Intervention) (2022)

Little girl Clive (Mia Akemi Brown) is taking photographs in New Mexico, 1967, when a stranger calling himself Mann (Michael Esparza) appears in a flash and asks her to look after a glowing blue stone until his return. He is then taken away by men in black. 25 years later, Clive (Carie Kawa) is married to Mitch (Daniel Dorr) but still waiting for her Mann, and unable to move on from the rundown motel where she looks after her ageing mother (Cynthia Mace). 

When the alien is released by a renegade government agent (a show-stealing Gregory Jbara), Clive must relocate the stone, work out her small but significant place in this cosmic confluence of events, and contemplate what kind of future she wants now that she can finally let go of the past. Even as Janet Grillo’s desert-set slow burn tracks Clive’s spiritual and psychological journey, it also cynically suggests that her problems can be solved by money – while subtly anticipating further apocalypses to come where no amount of money can help. 

The Great Glitch/Children of Paradise (Det Store Glitch/Paradisets Børn, 2023)

“A film is always born from a wish,” says a voiceover at the beginning of writer/director Søren Peter Langkjær Bojsen’s feature, announcing that we are watching a fiction whose characters are products and playthings of a writer’s imagination. Here those characters – youth lost over one summer in Copenhagen – are similarly driven by desire. Rune (Joos Støvelbæk) longs to be a part of a meaningful revolutionary movement, but has no idea what that would involve. His weed-addicted friend Søren (Lukas Gregory) falls hard in love with Franka (Leonora Saabye), but she reciprocates only half-heartedly. And just as Rune and Søren go by their respective nicknames (Ronja and Serb), and the film comes with a double-title, Franka too has a doppelgänger in the altogether cheerier Esther (also played by Saabye), who starts hanging around with Søren.

As these three (or is it four?) post-millennial slackers succumb to freak infestations, wild conspiracies, unexplained disappearances, unrestrained binges and uncanny glitches in the system that express themselves in the very texture of the film’s artefacting, jump-cutting footage and warping soundtrack, this “cross-eyed and sometimes kind of ridiculous fairy-tale” (as the narrator puts it) follows their dazed rites of passage though a world that never fully makes sense, in search of love. It is a triumph of vibe over reason, capturing a generation dazed and confused in a fantasy of someone else’s making. Do not miss the mid-credits coda.

The Elderly (Viejos, 2022)

After his elderly wife Rosa commits suicide, retiree Manuel (Zorion Eguileor) reluctantly moves in with his adult son Mario (Gustavi Salmerón), Mario’s teen daughter Naia (Paula Gallego) and Mario’s new, newly pregnant wife Lena (Irene Anula). Yet as the temperature rises to record levels, and the city turns into a sweltering hell on earth, family tensions bubble to the surface, while Manuel and the other elderly start behaving very strangely and portending inescapable doom.

Co-directed by Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez (The Passenger, 2021), this gerontophobic apartment horror hints only obliquely at what is coming. There are impressionistic nods towards the ghostly, the apocalyptic, the psychological or the extra-terrestrial, with even casual words in the background contributing to our impression of what may be unfolding – but at the same time the film clearly allegorises society’s shifting attitudes towards the elderly as all at once valuable repositories of history, conduits of familial tradition, wizened objects of abjection, and reminders of humanity’s universal destiny.

Wintertide (2023)

In John Barnard’s sci-fi horror, co-written with Carrie-May Siggins, Beth (Niamh Carolan) struggles to disentangle her dreams from reality, and viewers may well share the feeling. For in a future world of permanent winter, where a disease, staved off only by medication, has left towns depopulated and the uninfected lonely (and horny), it is hard not to recognise our recent, all-too-real experiences under Covid being reflected through a oneiric fiction.

In a zombie-like lethargy, diseased ‘strays’ have until recently been largely non-aggressive, even as their numbers keep growing – but as Beth goes off her meds, searches for her missing father (John B. Lowe), and sees anyone with whom she forms a connection succumbing to the illness, she starts to wonder if she herself, or at least the vampiric double that she keeps seeing in her nightmares, might be a Typhoid Mary. Or maybe she is herself one of the infected, experiencing their dissociation and depression from the inside while dreaming normal life through a glass darkly. Either way, this is a disorienting, dispiriting tale of humanity left behind.

The Eye and the Wall (2021)

Elite fascist authorities use violence and fear to rule over Gabbahn City, an immured urban slum that is also a surveillance state and a closed system, while its inmates, amid constant shortages and poverty, struggle to survive and occasionally to resist. Alba (Cecilia Porras) wishes to stay with her family and continue helping the sick, but both her rebel boyfriend Abdel (Alexandre Alzate) and her aunt Lucre (Yolanda Coronado) are making separate deals to have her smuggled outside to an unknown freedom. As the authorities come down hard in pursuit of a stolen MacGuffin, a bleak drama plays out involving endless negotiation, exploitation and sacrifice, with the very faintest glimmer of hope on the other side.  

Text that opens Javier del Cid’s feature debut states that the film is “in honour of all Latin-American immigrants”. This ensures that what we are watching, though clearly influenced by the dystopias of Orwellian allegorical fiction, is always grounded in, and extrapolated from, contemporary structures of oppression that are entirely real.

Remote (2022)

In a world of the near future, Unoaku (Okwui Okpokwasili) lives a life of routine (exercise, work, reading, meals) alone in her state-of-the-art apartment during a Covid-style lockdown. Her favourite part of the day is watching Rainbow Panda, a relaxing live webcast in which Eun-ji (Joony Kim) grooms her dog Soju online. One day, though, Unoaku notices a glitch in the programme, which leads her to find the only other four people (Nikita Tewani, Pooya Mohseni, Yvette Mercedes, Antonia Predovan) scattered across the globe who also seem able to see this ‘anomaly’. 

As these five women – all speaking different languages, all living on the sixth floor of their respective buildings – investigate, together but remotely, the mystery of what unites them, directors Mika Rottenberg and Mahyad Tousi carefully elaborate a simple-seeming scenario of female companionship and solidarity that ever so gradually assumes a more surreally cosmicomic aspect. Charming and increasingly weird, this exposes our place in an occasionally buggy universe that is beyond human comprehension – if perhaps not beyond human connection.

The Bystanders (2022)

Peter Weir (Scott Haran) – a former child genius at chess who is now an inconspicuous office drone – is recruited precisely for his anonymity to become a Bystander, a kind of empowered guardian angel tasked with watching over, and invisibly helping, an individual Subject. Peter is trained by jaded Bystander Frank (Seann Walsh), who out of boredom proposes that they swap Subjects, so that Frank now has ‘middle-class girl from Kent’ Sarah (Georgia Mabel Clarke), and Peter has feckless loser Luke (Andi Jashy), whom Peter hopes to transform into a winner so that Peter himself can win the award for Bystander of the Year, and make up for losing a chess contest decades earlier. Hilarious rivalry ensues, as misanthropic Frank, who can only see the world through ‘Frank-tinted glasses’, sets about, purely for the lulz, undermining Luke’s – and Peter’s – newfound success. 

Gabriel Foster Prior’s feature debut reconfigures Wings Of Desire or The Adjustment Bureau as a London comedy of meddling manners, full of boozy nights, poltergeist pranking, workspace satire, and personal development for both the barely living and their ghostly counterparts. It is sweet, funny and schlumpily humane – and finally explains why we are always losing our coat and wallet, or finding the traffic lights against us, when we most need things to runs smoothly. 

Anton Bitel