A couple of years ago I took a friend to see a film at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival and on the way out he casually said to one of the organisers that he was enjoying the convention… This brought the swift rebuke, ‘this is not a convention, it’s a festival!’ I can understand the confusion. In many respects it’s never been easier to be a sci-fi fan in this country. Doctor Who is the second most popular show on British television and in America, Battlestar Galactica gets plaudits from highbrow magazines and newspapers alike. Before either of these shows were revived, it was considered embarrassing to admit you were a fan of the old versions (except as some kind of ironic appreciation of retro TV) and it would have been immediately assumed that you were a 30-something, anorak-wearing social misfit who still lived with their parents. If you were a fan – and I use the word in italics to suggest that the word itself came with negative connotations and the baggage of stereotype – then to find out more about your niche interest, you might go to conventions to meet other fans. There, you could exchange over-priced merchandise, buy fanzines and audio tapes based on your favourite shows and pay Ã‚Â£15 for the signature of a D-list actor who once played a Klingon 20 years ago.
Nowadays, these kinds of conventions still exist and yes, you may find stereotypical fans at Sci-Fi London but since science fiction has become more socially acceptable, the festival also attracts casual consumers of sci-fi who want to see something more underground or ‘art-house’ than what TV and big-budget cinema have to offer. Now in its 7th year, SFL has been held in the centre of the city since its conception – and not in some warehouse in Outer London, as might be expected. Like the bigger, more generalist London Film Festival, SFL brings us films that may never get released in regular cinemas or even on DVD in this country. At the last few festivals, I’ve seen some of the best genre films of recent years – Subject Two, 1 point 0, Robot Stories, The Great Yokai War – some of the worst – The Fall of the Louse of Usher (sic) and Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth – and some of the most overrated – Primer – but this is the way with all specialist film festivals, be it the Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the German Film Festival, etc. While it would be great if (art-house) cinemas had weekly slots for unseen sci-fi, gay or German films on a regular basis so you wouldn’t have to cram a year’s worth of a certain genre into a long weekend, this is the current state of affairs, so we should celebrate what we have.
This year’s Sci-Fi London has already announced two premieres that justify the existence of the festival alone. First there’s Dante 01 by Marc Caro, co-director of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. When Jean Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro went their separate ways after The City, Jeunet continued to make successful films on his own such as Amelie, while Caro became an art director on the likes of Vidoc, a genre classic that deserved more attention than it got on its release seven years ago. Not much information has been released on Dante 01 yet, but since Vidoc’s ‘steam-punk’ look, which made nineteenth-century Paris look like a living oil painting through the use of evocative CGI, I’ve been looking forward to Caro’s follow-up. What’s more, Dante 01 mixes the prison genre with sci-fi and fantasy elements, so I hope that it will continue the tradition of such great films as Cube, Prison, Fortress and Maléfique.
The other exciting premiere this year is La Antena, an intriguing, silent, monochrome Argentine movie that occupies the middle ground between the films of Guy Maddin and Guillermo Del Toro. Plot-wise, it reworks Orwellian themes of cultural domination, brain-washing by TV and state symbols of oppression into an expressionistic fairy tale. La Antena was the first film to be shown as both the opening and closing film of the Rotterdam Film Festival this year and comes with a raft of awards. Following the success of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage, this will hopefully continue the Latin American fantasy renaissance that flowered in literature half a century ago and now seems to have come to fruition in cinema as well.
Like its horror counterpart Frightfest, SFL also does all-night screenings (something that the BFI IMAX has started to copy over the last year), and these have previously included animé and black and white British sci-fi films. This year as ever, there’s a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 all-night screening, which combines improv comedy with screenings of ‘turkeys’ from the last fifty years. It’s events like these and the ‘talkeoke’ sessions in previous years that have kept a bit of the convention flavour going in the festival, even if the organisers are at pains to suggest otherwise.
There are still many old-school fans in attendance but SFL also attracts cooler fashionistas looking for alternative programming. By having a variety of events that range from highbrow to lowbrow – encompassing the Douglas Adams Memorial Debate, the Arthur C. Clarke Awards and a little bit of cosplay – the festival tries to be all things to all (sci-fi) men and it almost always succeeds. That said, I miss the days when some of the films were shown at Curzon Soho and some at the Other/Metro Cinema and worry that by being hosted at the Apollo West End it has gone for a venue that is slightly intimidating and overpriced for both sci-fi and art-house fans. But the friendly atmosphere, free gifts and celebrity guests (such as last year’s John Landis and Stuart Gordon) make up for this a great deal and I can’t think of a better way to spend the May bank holiday.