Tag Archives: Sci-Fi-London


OXV The Manual
OXV: The Manual


24 April – 4 May 2014

London, UK

SFL website

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’&#234tre. 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:

Alex Fitch


Best Friends Forever
Best Friends Forever


30 April – 6 May 2013

London, UK

SFL website

Alex Fitch reviews some of the highlights of this year’s Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, which took up residence again at Stratford East Picturehouse and the BFI.

Best Friends Forever (Brea Grant, 2013)
An unlikely mash-up of Thelma and Louise (1991), Clueless (1995) and When the Wind Blows (1986), Best Friends Forever is a terrific, low-budget road movie which sees a pair of friends travel cross country from L. A. to Austin, Texas, oblivious to the apocalypse that is taking place around them. Written, produced by and starring Vera Miao and Brea Grant, the director, the film obviously relies heavily on the chemistry between the two leads. Luckily, they make for an endearing pair of travelling companions, unaware that the usual travails that beset unwary voyagers (being car jacked, breaking down, visiting remote rest stops) are now tinged with additional despair and calamity as news reports bring info about nuclear attacks on the USA.

Gritty cinematography and snatches of doom-laden radio on the soundtrack reflect the legacy of 1970s road movies, but with a refreshingly female-orientated storyline and lightness of touch. The film ends with a comic-book illustrated credit sequence that presages a possible Mad Max-style sequel, and the preceding mixture of slapstick and pathos that accompany Miao and Grant’s adventures make the trip fly by. On the basis of this first sojourn, I for one would be more than happy to spend more time in their company.

Listen to Alex Fitch’s interview with actress Vera Miao.

Watch the trailer for Best Friends Forever:

Birdemic II: The Resurrection (James Nguyen, 2013)
While Sci-Fi-London has screened some tremendous films over the years, including numerous gems that might never have seen the light of day otherwise, the festival also has the dubious honour of having screened two of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life. Following 2002’s The Fall of the Louse of Usher (sic), a film I would like to see wiped from the face of the earth so director Ken Russell’s reputation can be preserved in his dotage, we now have a film so incompetent in its construction that it beggars belief that anyone wanted to commit it to film, assuming the preceding Birdemic I is even half as bad. Unbelievably, I found myself in the minority at the London premiere, as an audience filled with Birdemic fans whooped and cheered every clunky line of dialogue, woeful ‘special effect’ and inept editing decision. To add insult to injury, a film critic sitting next to me thought it was wonderful, which increasingly made me feel I was in a room full of people who were drunk, insane, members of a cult, or all three.

Certainly Sci-Fi-London has a regular and loyal audience for its MST3K screenings – all night marathons of B-movies which are heckled by onscreen comedians – but this cherishing of terrible films by audiences (pace The Room phenomenon) is inexplicable to me, particularly during a recession, unless somehow the postage-stamp budget is enough to justify the existence of such train wrecks. It would be churlish of me to point out the flaws in the 1980s video-game style CGI, the interminable opening scene or the ham-fisted edits of the cast (seemingly filmed on separate days), so I’ll leave the last word to a member of the audience who innocently asked the following of the director, at the Q & A after the film: ‘In the scene where the girl is attacked by a giant jellyfish, why is she taken away by what looks like a cartoon ambulance?’

Dark by Noon
Dark by Noon

Dark by Noon (Alan Leonard & Michael O’Flaherty, 2012)
Since the start of this decade, Ireland has produced an unexpected number of sci-fi films, following a history of next to none. These have included post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings (2009), comedy monster movie Grabbers (2012), UFO rom-com Earthbound (2012) and now time-travel thriller Dark by Noon. The latter closed this year’s festival and, as a low-budget local film that punches above its weight in terms of ambition and concept, was a good choice for this slot.

While ostensibly set in a futuristic Dublin, the film has a mid-Atlantic feel, mixing the grit and clenched teeth of Anglo-Irish gangster films and the post-industrial noir look of Blade Runner (1982). The second of this year’s ‘mid-apocalyptic’ films at Sci-Fi-London, following Best Friends Forever, Dark by Noon’s aptly oppressive atmosphere presages a terror attack on the city, which the lead character – a time-travelling eidetic savant played by Patrick Buchanan – tries to prevent from happening.

In the Q&A following the film, the movie’s directors, Alan Leonard and Michael O’Flaherty, talked about how this type of character might be seen as the origin of a new superhero (or villain), as well as how various cuts of the film exist, with the one shown at the festival probably not the one that will gain further release. With the cut shown, the interest in the intriguing plot and excellent production design is offset by a slightly obtuse narrative and somewhat one-note performances by all involved. With a bit more light shone into the darkness (in terms of both tone and plot clarification), sequels and longer cuts would certainly be welcome.

Dead Meat Walking (Omar J. Pineda, 2012)
Over the past 10 years, the phenomenon of zombie walks has become increasingly visible in metropolitan environments across the globe, as members of the public – with varying skills at make-up and choreography – meet up, dress as the living dead and lurch from one place to another in the glare of smartphone cameras and bemused onlookers. Dead Meat Walking tracks this meme from its early days at the turn of the century as an ill-attended gathering of half-a-dozen Canadians in Toronto to the improbable occasions of several thousand people gathering for zombie events in North and Latin American cities.

First-time director Omar J. Pineda frames the proceedings with a confident air and a very slick presentation for most interviews included in the film. Only the brief exchanges with zombie alumni – such as director/make-up expert Tom Savini, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus and Night of the Living Dead co-author John Russo – seem grabbed in haste at memorabilia conventions, where the sound and picture aren’t quite up to the professional standard of the humble interviewees on the zombie walks themselves. As an introduction to a somewhat bizarre subculture, this is an essential opening salvo, with particularly good interrogations of Reedus and a senior Rabbi who see a parallel between zombie walkers and the disaffected Occupy/99% movements. Elsewhere, while the enthusiasm of everyone involved is endearingly obvious, it would have been great to have a psychologist’s opinion of the phenomenon to counterbalance the occasionally vacuous pronouncements of the walkers themselves, but then I suppose one shouldn’t expect great self-examinations from the shuffling dead, when their presence is more about spectacle than insight.

Watch the trailer for Dead Meat Walking:

Piercing Brightness (Shezad Dawood, 2012)
Armed with the desire to engage with local immigrant culture and people, and curious to explore Lancashire’s reputation for the largest number of UFO sightings in the UK, filmmaker and fine artist Shezad Dawood travelled to Preston to make a film that addressed some of these concerns. Following the artist’s first film, Feature, a beguiling mash-up of cowboys, blue-skinned aliens, musical numbers and funeral arrangements, Dawood tackles a longer length project and provides almost enough visual material and intriguing narrative ellipses to engage the viewer for the 75 minute running time.

Listen to Alex Fitch’s discussion with director Shezad Dawood here. Piercing Brightness is released by Soda Film+Art in cinemas and art spaces across the UK on 7 June.

Piercing Brightness premiered in a shorter cut called Trailer, which was about half the running time of the feature, as part of a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Although perhaps better framed in the gallery environment than a traditional cinema, the shorter cut is almost entirely impenetrable, with its disparate and disjointed elements of Close Encounters, mass observation and skateboard culture. Additional dialogue in the longer cut gives us some insight into the lives of the participants, but this is a film primarily about the juxtaposition of images of the ‘kitchen sink’ North with flying saucers. As a provocation to more traditional films set in and around these subjects, the film has enough set pieces to engage viewers used to the alienating (pun intended) extremes of art-house cinema, such as that practised by Lukas Moodysson or Abbas Kiarostami. However, for more casual viewers of traditional sci-fi, to quote a member of the audience at the screening: ‘I had no idea what it was all about…’

Sado Tempest

Sado Tempest (John Williams, 2012)
A dystopian reworking of The Tempest featuring a Japanese alt-rock band isn’t the most obvious adaptation of Shakespeare, but speaking as someone who first enjoyed the Bard on screen via Kurosawa’s samurai interpretations of King Lear (Ran, 1985) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957), sometimes the most obscure translations are the best. Sado Tempest sees members of the band Jitterbug locked up in an inhospitable island prison for inspiring their audiences to rebel against a future government’s totalitarian regime. There, tortured and browbeaten by inmates and guards alike, the band are forced to record bland new ‘unreleased’ material to fill the pockets of record company execs who want to satiate an eager public who think their heroes are dead. If you’re wondering where the travails of Miranda and Prospero come in, this is all against the backdrop of a wild island inhabited by demons, once scoured by an apocalyptic storm, which threatens to return again…

This is a beautifully shot film with engaging musical numbers and a convincing dystopian environment. But for a sci-fi film, the fantastical elements are strangely subdued and the filmmakers shy away from parallels with the 2011 T&#333hoku tsunami, both being elements that could have improved the saga immeasurably. The prison drama is captivating but the leaden pace undermines the film, which ironically is at its most memorable when a character quotes the original wording of Ariel’s song from The Tempest, rather than any of the new songs or poetry commissioned for this version.

Watch the trailer for Sado Tempest:

The Search for Simon (Martin Gooch, 2013)
A new British film that mixes travelogue and conspiracy theories to make a low budget sci-fi comedy isn’t the most obvious choice for a gala screening at the BFI, but as Sci-Fi-London’s first feature film (produced in association with the festival), it made a lot of sense as a PR opportunity. Filming on the fly necessitated director Martin Gooch be the main actor and he makes for a likeable, affable lead, even though he doesn’t have quite the emotional range to pull off the more dramatic scenes. The cameos by telefantasy actors Simon Jones, Sophie Aldred and Tom Price work well, even when the occasional stunt casting elsewhere – such as a reoccurring role for fantasy games author Ian Livingstone – kills certain scenes stone dead through the gravitational pull of wooden acting by non-professionals.

The plot – about a UFO obsessive looking for proof of alien life and his ‘abducted’ brother – toys with our expectations well, with a daft and incongruous robot in one scene offset by an excellent bit of CGI at the end. Overall, The Search for Simon is a bit of a mixed bag, no doubt due to the haphazard construction of the film, through footage shot before the script was finalised, crowd-funding that necessitated cameos by the public and a strange war-themed (but amusing) opening scene, but the charm of the production as a whole makes up for its handful of flaws.

Stress Position_1
Stress Position

Stress Position (A.J. Bond, 2013)
An accomplished, chilling collision between fact and fiction, this Canadian psycho-drama follows in the footsteps of other mutually assured torture films such as last year’s True Love and The Wave (2008), but with a freshness and relevance to reality television post-Guantanamo Bay, which made it one of the most notable films of this year’s Sci-Fi-London. Ironically, for a film screening in a sci-fi festival, the film isn’t science fiction (only a bit of futuristic set dressing hints in that direction). However, as much of the best speculative fiction provokes debate and works as satire of the present day, the controversial subject matter makes it an apt subject for inclusion at the festival, rather than perhaps a lesbian and gay film festival, where it might have been lost in the mix.

Filmmaker A.J. Bond – recalling a flippant conversation with his friend, actor David Amito – decides to find out how long each of them might last if trapped in a modern torture camp like Guantanamo. The rules are: no actual pain or injury to be inflicted, no bringing of families into the arena, and when the tortured gives up a secret code, the test is to stop. Trapping David in a high tech, white-walled prison, with a sharp edged, metallic, modernist sculpture in the middle, the experiment begins and A.J. starts ignoring the rules, one by one.

Stress Position is an intelligent, thought-provoking film, which can only become increasingly relevant as we cast everyone we know in the filmed dramas of our lives, as captured on smart phones and Google glass, uploaded to the web. Although the plot falters towards the end – after the more realistic battle of wits between the two for most of the running time, A.J. becomes the victim of more overt tortures like waterboarding, which seem contrived – the overall effect is a film you both want to see again because of its numerous admirable qualities, and never want to re-endure because the psychological tortures are so convincing and the verisimilitude too unnerving.

Strange Frame: Love and Sax (GB Hajim, 2012)
A fun sci-fi animated musical drama, Strange Frame wears its garish Metal Hurlant / bande dessinée influences loudly on its sleeve, which is no bad thing. While Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1998) and Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) have captured the anarchic spirit of European comics well, other examples such as Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitam (2004) have relied on an insufficient CGI budget to capture the lurid colour schemes and landscapes typical of the medium. Strange Frame lands halfway between these two directors’ achievements. Visually, the film is stunning, capturing a hallucinogenic Jovian environment replete with all manner of aliens, space craft and futuristic architecture, but the quality of the individual images is let down by the animation involved in making them move.

In terms of dynamism, this isn’t as low down the scale as South Park, but movement is somewhat jerky and unnatural, presumably because of a reliance on a flash animation rendering programme or similar. For fans of machinima or Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s work, this won’t be a problem, but it’s a shame that when nearly every other aspect of the production is terrific, it’s diminished by this element. In terms of the soundtrack: animation voice stalwart Tara Strong stars as the film’s object of desire Naia, surrounded by a host of familiar telefantasy stars such as Ron Glass, Juliet Landau, Claudia Christian, Michael Dorn and George Takei, while an infectious score mixes jazz and 1980s rock. As the demonic head of a record label, Tim Curry is perfectly cast in a role that recalls both Legend (1985) and inevitably The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as much of the film is aimed at fans of his most famous film.

Overall: well worth a look for anyone interested in animation not produced by the mainstream studios, and one can only hope this film does well enough to warrant a sequel to allow the audience to explore this rich world further, albeit next time with perhaps more experienced puppeteers guiding the animation team.

Watch the trailer for Strange Frame: Love and Sax:

Alex Fitch