Monday, April 25, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi Shorts #2

The 49th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival
Sci-Fi Shorts #2, Sunday, April 17, 2016

This was the last of four short film sessions that I saw at this year's Worldfest-Houston. More sci-fi!

The Roma Project
Director: Harry Keenan
Screenwriter: Evan Scott Russell
Length: 19:37 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film's Facebook page

A young man wakes up in a mental institution, and is told he's been in a car accident that killed his mother. He dreams of a woman (it's not clear to me if it's his mother; I assume so but she seems very young) in a meadow with a tattoo on her wrist, and is asked to describe the dream repeatedly. Eventually he realizes something odd is going on, particularly when he sees the tattoo symbol on some hospital, and notices armed guards stationed outside of the room where he meets with the "doctor." [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Ultimately, the young man learns that he has powerful telekinetic powers, and breaks out with another patient he has befriended. From the tattoo "clue," I inferred that the place had been experimenting on his mother at some point, perhaps while he was in the womb.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with this film, and I thought it was very well-acted, but it didn't tread a lot of new ground so I didn't find it particularly memorable.

Tomorrow's Dream
Director: David Gould
Screenwriter: David Gould
Length: 06:40 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: New Zealand
Film's Facebook page

This piece had a theme that I've now seen a number of times in short films: a man frantically works, to the point of endangering his own life, to find some way, any way, to bring back the (usually tragically killed) love of his life. In Ben Goodger's Anamnesis, a young man uses some kind of alien lifeform to keep replaying the perfect last day; in Ronald Eltanal's Nostalgic, an aging scientist takes an experimental drug that lets him see his now-dead wife, even as it prevents him from forming new memories; and here, a young man invents a time machine to insert his current consciousness into his former self to try to prevent his girlfriend's death.

In spite of the inherent predictability in such a film, I found Tomorrow's Dream refreshing in its relative simplicity and length -- it managed to get an entire relationship and story across in under seven minutes. My husband and I had different interpretations of the young man's ultimate fate, but that was part of the fun. I also liked the relative low-tech of the time machine's appearance.

Targeted Advertising
Director: Mitchell Rose
Screenwriter: Mitchell Rose
Length: 03:54 minutes
Category: Science fiction/Comedy
Country: USA
Film on YouTube

Like Cruxberry, which I saw in an earlier session during this festival, Targeted Advertising does not try to tell a hugely complex story, but instead effectively manages to get across a single concept in under four minutes. The program book calls this "a sci-fi aerial dance-film" in which "spambot drones chase a fleeing populace blasting ads for Viagra, hair loss products, and other exciting values."

If you are ever online -- and you are, if you're reading this -- you will definitely get the point of this film. It was a lot of fun, particularly the ending. You can watch it in its entirety at the link above.

As You Were
Director: Trevon Matcek
Screenwriter: Trevon Matcek
Length: 22:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film on YouTube

This film is about Johnner, a soldier who returns home with high-tech prosthetic limbs to replace the ones he lost in combat, and finds he has to reconnect not just with himself, but also with his wife, children, and society in general. Because that society has become leery of robots, Johnner has difficulty finding even a simple job, but he eventually finds some balance.

This film was moving, and the acting terrific. I liked the montage of prospective employers thanking the veteran ever so earnestly for his service while clearly hoping he would just get the hell out of their offices. There was one part of the film that didn't quite make sense to me, however: Johnner does finally find a job working with hazardous robotic materials, and wears a hazmat suit while breaking things apart and moving them, but people without protection seem to be standing no more than a few yards away without being in danger. It's just not clear what he's actually doing on this job, so it felt like a convenient excuse to have Johnner flash back on the drone that caused his injuries.

My only other quibble is that I thought the anti-robot graffiti that Johnner encounters while out jogging was a little heavy-handed. Overall, however, I thought this film was very well done. And extra bonus points for the nod to the Terminator franchise. Also while jogging (with a cute bit in which Johnner kicks the soccer ball, inadvertently sending it into next week), he encounters two boys named Kyle and Reese. Yep, I see what you did there....

Silent Night
Director: Nastassja Djalog
Screenwriter: Nastassja Djalog
Length: 11:04 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: Australia

A nurse shows up at the bedside of a woman who has just given birth, swabs the inside of the baby's cheek, and learns that it will die around age fifty of cancer. For that reason, the "system" decides that the baby is unprofitable for society, and the nurse carries out her duty.

After which the nurse goes outside on a break and smokes a cigarette.

Don't get me wrong -- the nurse smoking is not the point of the film; it's window-dressing to show how distressed she is by her job. Movies, and especially short films, use this all the time: if you want the audience to see that a character is stressed, show them smoking a cigarette. But I really had trouble getting past this little detail when we were just told a baby was unprofitable because it would die a half century later of cancer. It seems to me that the possible lung cancer, and almost certain emphysema and heart disease, that this nurse is trying to give herself would be a lot less profitable.

Other than that, this film was quite decent. It's not particularly believable, but it does make the point that far too often, human lives are valued in dollars and cents. [SOME SPOILERS AHEAD] I did like the little touch that people being "released" (for lack of a better word) are given images of happy memories to watch. Initially, I didn't buy the way these images were retrieved from the patient's "identification." For instance, for an older man, his law diploma was fed into a wall slot, and the screen returned actual video of him graduating and receiving an award. For a young boy whose mother has "surrendered" him, the nurse puts a birthday card into the slot, and home-shot video of the birthday party comes up. It took me a while, but then I realized that Facebook can almost do this already, with the diploma, at least. Surely Facebook's algorithms can take the man's name and the school's name, call up any related video that is online (and what isn't online these days?), and perform facial recognition to make sure it got the right material. And this stuff is only going to get more sophisticated.

All in all, this chilling short film was worth watching. That smoking bit really bothered me, but upon reflection it occurs to me that it could be the nurse daring the system to tell her that she's not profitable, a way of dealing with the guilt by flirting with elimination herself. Maybe that's a reach, but if that's what was intended, it changes things for me a bit.

Director: David Victori
Screenwriter: David Victori
Length: 29:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Episode 1 on YouTube
(approx. 9 minutes)

The opening and closing credits for this film make a big deal of the fact that Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are attached to it, and indeed, this film has impressive special effects and cinematography. But I'm afraid I had significant issues with both the science and the plot.

A father trying to cope with his grieving son is on his way to work one day when Earth's gravity sort of turns off. Not all at once, but rather by degrees, so that at first little pebbles and bits of debris float around, then bigger and bigger things. Then, after gravity has somehow turned itself back on and everything has fallen back to the ground again, the father rushes home to check on his son, who has run off to the site where his mother was killed in a car accident. There he finds the man responsible for that accident. Convenient, but I can kind of accept it -- the man says that he thought the gravity phenomenon was a sign of the end times, so perhaps it makes sense that he would return to the scene of his greatest sin.

Aside from the gravity problem, then, I can live with these developments so far. But the gravity is a big issue. Consider the fact that the gravity on Mars is roughly one third of that on Earth. That doesn't mean that pennies and nickels and dimes sitting on the surface of Mars would just start floating because they're lighter than people or cars. Gravity is either one or off, so everything would be equally affected.

Even if I accept for the sake of the story that a gravity anomaly would work like that, however, the father-and-son story also became problematic for me. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Just as the father is chasing his son, the phenomenon strikes again. The boy latches on to an antenna tower, but then tells his father he's ready to go find his mother in heaven, and deliberately lets go, floating up and away. Bigger and bigger items start getting pulled up, and the boy goes out of sight completely. And then the switch flips again and everything starts falling. The boy conveniently falls into water (he probably would have been instantly killed from that height anyway) and the father rushes to save him while avoiding falling debris, but the boy is unresponsive. So the father carries him for several minutes until he gets to a place where a handful of people have gathered to help each other if they can, and then performs CPR. If he didn't know CPR it would have been one thing, but he knew it and didn't bother performing it right away! And then it's to no avail -- until the gravity switches off again, which coaxes the water out of the boy's lungs all by itself.

Sigh.... And then the boy wakes up and immediately has the huge emotional, screaming grief breakthrough that's been a long time coming, when actually he should have been brain dead by that point. And the man who killed his mother has also conveniently shown up at this location so they can all get some closure together.

I apologize -- it feels a little unfair that I'm being this nitpicky. But I just don't feel that the two main components of this film, i.e. an implausible science phenomenon and grief, went together naturally. It's fine, of course, to explore grief against any background or scenario, but in my mind that scenario needs to be integrated and at least somewhat plausible.

* * * * *

Click here to see all of my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from this and previous years.

No comments: