Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Science Fiction Shorts

[Poster from "Prelude to Axanar", Christian Gossett, Director]

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston
Science Fiction Shorts, Sunday, April 19, 2015

On Sunday I saw the Sci Fi Shorts screening at the Worldfest-Houston film festival, including "Prelude to Axanar", an independent Star Trek project. Although that film was the first screened of the group, I'm going to talk about it last because it's the one about which I have the most to say. In the meantime, here are the other films from the session.

(I apologize in advance for the long and opinionated nature of this post. If there's anything in the world I feel strongly about, it's science fiction.)

Director: Rick Lord
Screenwriter: Rick Lord
Length: 26:19 minutes
Category: Science Fiction/Live Action
Country: USA
Film website

In this film, a man has decided not to partake of a drug that extends life spans and reduces disease, but comes with a price attached: your every movement is monitored. Having lost his wife years before, he tries to shield his daughter Madison from the world, which is becoming harder all the time since the few remaining holdouts are apparently not allowed to hold jobs or buy provisions, and instead have to resort to begging, borrowing, or stealing what they need. To make matters worse, Madison's older brother has already gone over to the other side.

This was an interesting enough premise, but the pacing was quite slow, and seemed even slower due a constant background thrumming on the soundtrack. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) There's actually an explanation for the thrumming in the end; as the camera pulls away from the shabby house where the man and his daughter live, we see a huge alien spacecraft filling the entire sky. This also explains the strange and dangerous electrical storms that happen without warning.

While I liked the explanation, I felt that the film might have been more effective had we not actually seen what the aliens look like. They visit periodically to leave packets of the drug behind, deliberately appearing to Madison when her father is not there, and it looks like they may be gaining ground with her. Unfortunately, the alien's make-up and special effects looked out of place in this otherwise professional-looking film. The ending view of the spaceship looked amazing, but I couldn't take the actual alien seriously. Viewers have powerful imaginations, and sometimes letting them imagine something is even scarier than showing it to them.

Director: Florian Frerichs
Screenwriter: Florian Frerichs
Length: 12:10 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: Germany
Behind the Scenes/Interviews

In "Phoenix", a "firefighter" burns books, which are forbidden, but an encounter with a young woman makes him rethink his position. This short film was visually beautiful, and it's a good story, but it's also a common one -- weren't they specifically called "firefighters" in Fahrenheit 451 too?

Even if this weren't such a direct re-telling, there is a much used science fiction trope consisting of: a controlling government that forbids something; a main character who is an enforcer, often turning in one of his or her closest friends; and that same character eventually seeing the light and turning to the other side, thereby becoming a fugitive so that the hunter becomes the hunted. Think Logan's Run, Equilibrium, Minority Report....

Still, it's a good story. But there was something I wondered about: at one point, the main character goes to a safe behind a painting in his home, and opens it to show three books, which (I think) were by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Stephen Hawking. My question is, did he already have those books before he met the girl? If he did, then his meeting her was much less significant, because the transition had already begun. I wish the film had made clear how long he had had those books.

Director: Ronald Eltanal
Screenwriter: Ronald Eltanal
Length: 11:11 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: USA

The program book describes this story as "An aging scientist must decide whether to continue taking an experimental drug that reconnects him to loved ones in his crumbling past, at the risk of being unable to form new memories." Basically, he takes the drug to be able to "see" his now-dead wife. This film is strikingly similar to "Anamnesis", which I saw at both Worldfest-Houston 2014 and Golden Blasters film festival at the European Science Fiction Convention in Dublin last year.

To be clear, I'm absolutely not suggesting that anything inappropriate happened; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of short films made each year, and sometimes coincidental similarities will crop up. I do find it amusing that the memories of the dead wife are on the beach, as were the memories of the dead girlfriend in "Anamnesis". I guess it's because there's something about a certain lens focus on a beach scene that makes an otherwise normally attractive woman seem utterly, even painfully beautiful.

I'm not sure if we're meant to conclude at the end that the man did or did not ultimately stop taking the drug, but I liked that he had recorded a message for his grandson.

Perfect State
Director: Tim Mackenzie-Smith
Screenwriters: Ryan Philpott; Tim Mackenzie-Smith
Length: 21:07 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: UK

"Perfect State" is another Big Brother/haves-and-have-nots film, but lest that sound like an overly harsh criticism, this one had some unique angles to it and was a lot of fun.

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) In this case, people wear wristbands that show different colors depending on the person's state of employment and the level of their bank accounts. Anyone who goes red is a "pov" (short for poverty, I assume) and can be arrested and forced into service for VitaKorp, which puts people to work doing menial jobs -- and, as we later find out, drugs them to keep them docile. The main character, Neil, is a banker who suddenly finds himself dangerously close to red when he gets fired and his girlfriend cleans out their bank account. Even worse, she and Neil's best friend betray Neil so they can have their 15 minutes of fame on a reality television show; they've tipped off John "Jack" Hunter, whose chases povs down on TV while delivering his trademarked line, "Gotcha!"

One thing I really enjoyed about this movie was the number of layers. We see not only the reality, but the reality television show. Then we see behind those scenes as Hunter's make-up is applied and he is interviewed, all the while insisting that he's not an actor. Then we see behind those scenes when the interviewer talks to a friend or a co-worker about Hunter.

To be sure, this movie's message is a little in-your-face at times, with a slick VitaKorp representative appearing on screens all over London reminding people that this was what they asked for when they contracted out and eliminated social services. But I think on some level, the "in-your-face" nature is part of the message too, because that's what constant advertising and reality television are themselves. In any case, it was a fun film with a message I agreed with (Americans sure seem to hate poor people!), and the actor who played Hunter was terrific.

The Wheel of Time
Director: Kağan Kerimoğlu
Screenwriter: Kağan Kerimoğlu
Length: 11:57 minutes
Category: Student/Science Fiction
Country: Turkey

This was another film about government control, which seemed to be the theme of the day. The government has told people they now have immortality, but it secretly murders its citizens, and locks them in houses so they cannot communicate with each other. They have screens that the government turns on remotely when it wants to deliver a message. A hacker attempts to get the information out to the people, and becomes a target.

This film didn't quite work for me, in large part because the villain, presumably a representative of government, was portrayed as a sadistic, violent thug, dressed in a t-shirt and leather jacket. I would have found quiet, understated menace much more effective, like Agent Smith in The Matrix. The film's ending was abrupt and inconclusive, and I was never sure how the title or the use of the ouroborous (a symbol of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail) tied into the story.

Prelude to Axanar
Director: Christian Gossett
Screenwriters: Alec Peters; Christian Gossett
Length: 21:10 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: USA
Film website

This is the film I was most looking forward to in this session, because I'm a rather enthusiastic Star Trek fan; I've had some short stories published in the officially licensed Star Trek anthologies from Pocket Books; I'd not yet seen any of the non-traditionally produced screen versions of Trek, some of which are highly regarded; and I knew this particular project boasts a terrific cast.

I'd expected this would be a short adventure of some kind, but instead it was a "documentary" sponsored by the United Federation of Planets Historical Society. Several key players from the historical battle of Axanar, which apparently was a turning point in the Four Years War between the Klingons and the Federation, are "interviewed" about their memories of events leading up to and during the battle. The interviewees are Klingon Supreme Commander Kharn (Richard Hatch), Admiral Marcus Ramirez (Tony Todd), Captain Sonya Alexander (Kate Vernon), Captain Samuel Travis (J.G. Hertzler), Vulcan Ambassador Soval (Gary Graham, reprising this role from Star Trek: Enterprise), and Captain Kelvar Garth of Izar (Alec Peters).

I was surprised, then, when casting actually turned out to be a bit of an issue for me. I admire Richard Hatch beyond words for the way he embraced the role of Tom Zarek in the new Battlestar Galactica. He had been trying for years to get his own revival of the show off the ground, based on his original character Apollo. So it was a huge disappointment for him when the new version of the show was instead a reboot -- but they offered him a recurring guest role as Zarek, which turned out to be a fairly juicy part but a far cry from the leading role. He was terrific as Zarek.

So when I say that I think Hatch was rather miscast as a Klingon in this iteration of Trek, it has nothing to do with his acting ability. Half the time I think the actors in Klingon roles are chosen primarily for their voices, which are generally booming, aggressive, and distinctive. Hatch's voice, on the other hand, is understated and dignified, and the contrast was especially apparent here because his interview snippets are intercut with everyone else's, including J.G. Hertzler as Captain Travis. This is significant because Hertzler played Martok, one of the best loved Klingon characters with one of the most distinctive voices, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In addition, I'm not sure that Alec Peters has the screen presence to carry what I presume is the lead role of Captain Garth, although it is perhaps unfair to say that based just on this short film. But Peters is the creative force behind this entire project; the film's website states that Peters wrote "the story" of "Garth of Izar", who appeared in a single episode of the original series, years ago. He wanted it to look like a real film instead of a fan film, though, so he waited until he could raise some money and bring in an experienced director.

The thing is, it still is a fan film, and to me it feels specifically like a wish fulfillment fan film. Even the fact that Garth is called "Garth of Izar" gives it that "it's about me!" vibe, although for all I know there's a very good reason the character is referred to that way. So although I'm impressed that Peters has been able to put together this huge project, much of which is crowdfunded, I think it was a mistake to cast himself in this role, the same way I think it's almost always a mistake for fiction editors to include their own stories in anthologies they're editing. I think Hatch should have been cast as Garth and someone else should have been cast as the Klingon Supreme Commander. Not Hertzler -- his Klingon voice will always be Martok -- but someone with a more savage, aggressive demeanor than Hatch exhibited.

Casting aside, this film was certainly impressive in its special effects, with many scenes of shipyards in space, debris in the aftermath of battles, and futuristic cityscapes. The only effect I thought fell a little short was when one of the cities was attacked by spaceships; the actual explosions and fire looked superimposed on the scene rather than a part of it.

[A side note to the creators: I caught at least one reference to "Garth and Sonya." In other words, men are called by their last names and women by their first. This is Star Trek, a future in which women are treated equally. The Voyager crew referred to Janeway as Janeway, not as Kate or Katherine. Surely these characters can do the same for Captain Alexander. Maybe it was a mistake giving her a last name that's also a male first name, but that doesn't mean it's okay to refer to her differently than everyone else.]

In the end, there wasn't a lot of story here because this really is a creative way to do an extended trailer. I enjoyed J.G. Hertzler as Travis the most; his delivery of the lines was so natural that it felt like they were unscripted. Tony Todd also gave an effective and rousing speech (he has one of those voices too). I wish the project luck, but I can't say I'm overly excited about it. Part of the issue for me is that I am inherently biased against prequels, because we already know how the story is going to end. That's not to say it's never worth exploring and expanding, but Star Trek: Enterprise was always a little flat for me for the same reason.

Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings, including Animation/CGI Shorts, Family Shorts, Drama Shorts, and Fantasy Shorts.

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