Out of synch numerically with each year it’s been in operation, this year SCI-FI-LONDON skipped (unlucky) no.13 and used November 2012’s first Stratford-based autumn festival to make up the numbers so that SCI-FI-LONDON 14 could take place in 2014. Taking place at Stratford East Picturehouse and BFI Southbank, and with notable events in other venues, the festival offered a rich array of films, taking on a wide range of topics from Star Wars to alien asteroid collision and subjugating frequencies.
Lost Time (Christian Sesma, 2014)
The opener to this year’s festival wasn’t a strong start. A mishmash of the last 30 years of genre clichés, from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) to The X-Files (1993-2002) with a healthy dose of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) thrown in, this half-baked smorgasbord of mysticism, alien abduction, parallel worlds and incarcerated lunatics would have been watchable if the script writers had chosen a couple of those themes rather than muddling through all of them. Stolid performances by B-movie actors Robert Davi and Luke Goss seem to be the project’s raison d’être. While the film opens well with an intriguing and disturbing juxtaposition of a cancer sufferer with her dreams of alien abduction and disembowelment, the following hour or so indeed feels like lost time for members of the audience waiting for the plot to successfully develop.
Watch the trailer for Lost Time:
Bunker 6 (Greg Jackson, 2013)
Luckily the second day of the festival saw not only the premiere of a terrific new Canadian sci-fi film but also the festival’s first use of an amazing, atmospheric screening location. Bunker 6 imagines an alternative 1970s where the increasingly claustrophobic survivors of an alternative Cuban Missile Crisis where the nukes flew are bickering over dwindling supplies in their subterranean fallout bunker. A tight, excellent cast and a real-life location – that apparently needed little kitting out to convince viewers of its period setting – combine to make a taut, intelligent thriller that deserves a larger audience. The screening at SCI-FI-LONDON took place in a genuine World War II bunker beneath the streets of Dalston and at times made the audience feel like a hole had been cut in the wall to reveal a drama beyond. One hopes the festival can programme more esoteric events like this in the future.
Watch the trailer for Bunker 6:
Beyond (Tom Large and Joseph Baker, 2014)
The third premiere of the festival apparently almost didn’t make it into the programme as there were doubts as to whether the film qualifies as science fiction (it depends on how you interpret the scenes set in the present). In any case, Beyond is a great new Scottish genre movie, set in two time periods – one before an extinction level asteroid is en route to the Earth and the other after aliens have depopulated the planet to a minority of survivors who successfully hid during the first cull. Cutting back and forth between the two, the plot follows the travails of a pair of engaging leads played by Richard J. Danum and Gillian MacGregor as the scenarios take their toll on the pair’s relationship. With a backdrop of impressive special effects and a sense of impending doom, the film often comes across as a sci-fi response to Once (2006), albeit one with aliens instead of singing, and that’s no bad thing at all.
Watch the trailer for Beyond:
Struggled Reagans (Gregg Golding, 2013)
If I described Struggled Reagans as a punk-trash porno tongue-in-cheek underground take on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993-present) then no matter how much I may explain how wretched a film-watching experience it is, it’s safe to say that it’d be bound to glean an audience of ironic hipster / student fans of gonzo filmmaking, or B-movie fanatics with a drink in their hands. For about half its running time Struggled Reagans is amusing or quirky enough to justify its existence, with the filmmakers channelling the style of early John Waters or Troma films reasonably well, but it is a struggle to persevere with the 85-minute runtime and the story would have been better received if delivered in shorter instalments like its TV forebear.
Watch the trailer for Struggled Reagans:
SOS: Save Our Skins (Kent Sobey, 2014)
Weirdly, SCI-FI-LONDON 14 had no fewer than three pairs of movies whose plots mirrored each other. SOS, like Beyond, is a British film that tells the tale of a giant rock about to hit the Earth, which presages an alien invasion (see below for reviews of another pair – OXV: The Manual and LFO), but here the story is told for comedic rather than tragic effect. In SOS, a duo of hapless geeks staying in New York to attend a sci-fi convention find a deserted city, with the only signs of life an elderly cannibal, an escaped female lunatic and a blue monster dogging their steps. The cast is filled with stalwarts from British TV comedy and the low budget is extremely well used, with shots of empty streets in Manhattan as effective and unnerving as anything from an American blockbuster. Films that juggle sci-fi, comedy and horror often struggle not to be uneven, but this is an amiable and accomplished piece that leaves the viewer wanting more.
Watch the trailer for SOS: Save Our Skins:
Saving Star Wars (Gary Wood, 2004)
A bittersweet comedy-drama that follows a Star Wars fan to a sci-fi convention with the hope of meeting George Lucas. Saving Star Wars has inevitably an early Kevin Smith vibe complete with longueurs and scenes that stay beyond their welcome. However, this is a hard film to dislike, made with love, obvious familiarity with the subject matter and contemporaneous genre films, and a lovely turn by Dave Prowse – the actor who wore the Darth Vader suit in the original Star Wars trilogy – playing himself. The director’s cut shown at SCI-FI-LONDON was apparently a little shorter than the original version, which the festival showed 10 years earlier, but could have been tightened further; perhaps another 10 minutes shorn off the length could have turned a likeable farce into a cult movie. As with early Smith, some of the performances are pretty good, some are fairly dire, but the script generally saves even the most leaden scenes, and for fans of George Lucas (who in this film, ironically, is played by the most wooden actor in the cast) the movie is worth watching for Prowse’s extended cameo alone.
Watch the trailer for Saving Star Wars:
Senn (Josh Feldman, 2013)
The artist Moebius (Jean Giraud) has been a great inspiration both directly and indirectly for SF cinema over the last five decades. Although only one film directly based on his comic book work – Blueberry (2004) – was made during his lifetime, this is possibly the thematically closest movie to his oeuvre since Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in 1997. Senn features a couple who work on tedious production lines on a human-settled alien planet, making incomprehensible objets d’arts to be shipped off to other worlds. Their blue-collar existence seems prescribed until the day they die. But when lead character Senn finds a glowing sentience in his locker, which is soon followed by the arrival of a massive alien vessel, he and his girlfriend will be taken across the galaxy on an ark-like ship to uncover an ancient mystery. Senn looks terrific, with alien languages designed by a master of the medium (cinematic Star Trek’s Britton Watkins). The languid plot, devoid of the laser beams, space battles and ugly aliens which have cursed science fiction to casual onlookers, is refreshing to say the least. Let down only by perhaps too few plot incidents to fill the running time – which feels longer than its 84 minutes – Senn is a gem that will hopefully accrue the cult following it deserves.
Watch the trailer for Senn:
Who’s Changing? An Adventure in Time with Fans (Cameron McEwan, 2014)
A crowd-funded British documentary about the history and current face of Doctor Who fandom, Who’s Changing? is a brisk and enjoyable documentary by Who expert Cameron K. McEwan who has also written a coffee table book on the programme and runs a website devoted to it. Various actors associated with the TV show’s past – Sophie Aldred, Louise Jameson – and present – Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey – are interviewed along with comic book writers, producers and fans of the programme and its spin-offs. All the interviews are professionally conducted and filmed, many in the environs of SF conventions and festivals, and contrast Doctor Who fandom in the early years – when Whovians were somewhat ridiculed by society – and the present day – where there is more diversity in the gender and age of fans. McEwan touches on interesting aspects of all the above, but perhaps not with enough depth or the insight that an anthropologist or sociologist might bring to the project. Ultimately a documentary for the fans and by the fans, Who’s Changing? is worth watching for anyone with a casual interest in one of the BBC’s most loved programmes, but rarely rises above the quality of a Doctor Who DVD extra, when it could have been a lot more.
Watch the trailer for Who’s Changing?:
LFO: The Movie (Antonio Tublén, 2013)
The first of another pair of similarly themed and named movies (see below for OXV), LFO is a tight Scandinavian drama that is presented like a sitcom – based around the relationship between a loner, the ghost of his dead wife and the couple who live opposite him – but contrasts its comedic moments with increasingly dark themes. Picked by festival curator Louis Savy as the best film of the 2014 line-up (I’d disagree and give it to OXV) the plot depicts an unstable sociopath who discovers a low frequency tone that when played can hypnotise and subjugate others to his will. There are touches of both ever-so-hip Scandi-noir and Berberian Sound Studio (2012) as lead actor Patrik Karlson (a bit part actor in Wallander and The Bridge) becomes increasingly obsessed with manipulating the world around him, just as the soundtrack begins to suggest he may not be an entirely reliable narrator. Disturbing, intriguing, amusing and thought-provoking in turn, LFO shows that a great science-fiction idea can be convincingly presented on a small number of sets with a tiny budget, and if nothing less, is a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking.
Watch the trailer for LFO: The Movie:
OXV: The Manual (Darren Paul Fisher, 2013)
A companion piece to LFO (the third pair of films with similar plots at SCI-FI-LONDON 14 were Upside Down (2012) and Patema Inverted (2013), both about a boy falling in love with an upside down girl, neither of which I got a chance to see), OXV is a tremendous new film about a semi-dystopian Britain, where people’s lives are dictated by what ‘frequency’ their body emits. In a parallel to class, IQ or susceptibility to viruses (as explored in Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 a decade before), low frequency people get few perks or opportunities in life, along with a constant risk of bad luck, while high frequency people receive advantages, opportunities and good luck. This conceit is first used in the plot as a charming rom-com device to pair up a mismatched couple of opposing frequencies from school to adulthood. But it is then combined with the notion of secret, semi-magical words that can disrupt a person’s frequency and also bend a person’s will to your commands. A terrific cast, plot structure and cinematic aesthetic not only make OXV the finest film of this year’s SCI-FI-LONDON, but also the best British sci-fi film in years. OXV has found an American distributor – under the more prosaic title Frequencies – and one hopes an intelligent distribution company will also see it released in its country of origin.
Watch a scene from OXV: The Manual: