Monday, April 18, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi Shorts (International)

The 49th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival
Sci-Fi Shorts (International), Saturday, April 16, 2016

Before this session began, Worldfest-Houston's Chairman and Founding Director J. Hunter Todd stopped in to welcome the audience. He noted that among the 1,400 short films submitted to this year's competition, over 400 of them were science fictional in some aspect. I'm not surprised; science fiction is well suited to short stories, so why not to short films?

Some spoilers may occur below.

Director: Anton Outkine
Screenwriter: Anton Outkine
Length: 15:07 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: Russia
Film's website

This short film introduces us to a future military conflict in which we see not the enemy, but a single pair of humans (husband and wife, according to the program book) racing in an overland transport to try and reach the relative safety of their base. As the woman tries to stabilize the man's injuries, they're interrupted by Orbital Command, which demands that the man receive a "CHING" call, or a communication in which his brain and voice are commandeered to relay the information. When the man dies, the woman takes brief comfort in the fact that the person on the other end of the link can still talk through her husband's body, but even that can last only a short time until that man's orbiting craft goes over the horizon and/or he runs out of oxygen himself.

I'm not entirely certain that I understood everything this short film intended to convey, but what I took away from it was that it was about waiting to die, and not having to do it alone, even if the connection you have with another person at that time is only fleeting. I could be reading this entirely wrong, but I did find it effective, and Alena Babenko in the lead role was particularly good.

The Art of Human Salvage
Director: Dempsey Tillman
Screenwriter: Ted Drewberry
Length: 09:30 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film's trailer

This film puzzled me, I'm afraid. In a totalitarian future, it's illegal to take photographs "in the shadows." A boy with an Altoid-tin camera is arrested and slated for execution because he's in a sensitive area while taking pictures. The main character, a "salvage officer," simultaneously seems to be the boy's defense advocate and his interrogator; he is spurred on by an overzealous superior who demands that he find out what the boy took pictures of. The boy asks the salvage officer to show him a photo of the latter's dead wife and child, and in return reveals to him -- but not to us -- a photo negative. The salvage officer busts the kid out, and the film ends.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing fairly frustrating. Edward James Olmos (yes, that Edward James Olmos) appears to offer a few cryptic lines that seemed fairly superfluous considering that we never really found out what was going on. Maybe the supervising officer (a part overacted to an unfortunate degree by Matthew Boylan) was responsible for the salvage officer's wife death? At the end, I had no idea what had happened, and I found it unrealistic that the salvage officer's interrogation of the boy wasn't observed by his superiors, and that they didn't discover where the boy had been hiding the negative under a skin flap.

Planet X
Director: Rohit Gill
Screenwriter: Rohit Gill
Length: 07:03 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: UK
Film's Facebook page

This story is told entirely in news snippets, which is something I've seen in short films now and again. Unfortunately, the basic premise was not one I found easy to accept, scientifically speaking. An unknown planet appears in Earth's sky -- low enough in our atmosphere that commercial planes can fly to it -- and is attached to Earth by a rather thick umbilical cord. For me, the part that's hard to accept is not the appearance of the planet (I'm happy enough to assume a wormhole or something), but rather the fact that the authorities couldn't find where on Earth the huge umbilical cord made contact, especially because our current satellite technology can find very small things these days. In addition, nothing is said on all these news clips about the likely meteorological and/or tidal effects of such a huge object so close to Earth.

At any rate, the actual story is that British politicians seemed determined to force people to emigrate to Planet X, amidst rumors that the umbilical cord is using up Earth's natural resources. I feel as though this was intended to be some kind of statement protesting Britain's immigration policies, and I suspect I agree with much of what was being conveyed, but I found it difficult to extract the message from the somewhat muddled vehicle that this sci-fi premise provided.

El Ladron de Luz / The Light Thief
Director: Eva Daoud
Screenwriter: unknown
Length: 19:02 minutes
Category: Science fiction (listed); Dark Fantasy (my categorization)
Country: Spain
Film's trailer

This was an interesting film. A wan, ill-looking young woman stands outside a restaurant window, forlornly watching as her former lover pursues his latest conquest. We quickly learn that it truly is conquest that the handsome young man is after; he captures each woman's essence or life force in a bottle for his own mysterious purposes. This young woman, however, is determined to get her life back.

I enjoyed this; the only point on which I was not clear was (SPOILERS AHEAD) how the young man could simultaneously be the predator as well as the victim of a similarly motivated woman, whose conquests numbered in the thousands. Maybe he discovered that with his own essence captured, the only way he could survive would be to turn the tables and start stealing from others. Or maybe it was a supernatural pyramid scheme, where his original "sponsor" also gets some benefit from his captures. Regardless, this is the kind of mild ambiguity that is fun rather than frustrating.

The Surface
Director: Willem Kampenhout
Screenwriters: Willem Kampenhout
Length: 19:59 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film website

In this post-apocalyptic film, Liz leaves the relative haven of her underground society to seek a remedy for her dying son, knowing only that there are "tainted" (non-human) monsters up on the surface that she will have to avoid. This was quite well done, especially Liz Christensen's acting in the lead role and the exterior post-apocalyptic scenery. There were a few moments when I found some imagery uncomfortably close to familiar sci-fi icons, such as the Borg-like appearance of the Tainted man that Liz encounters, and her own video-game like appearance in a hooded cloak with a staff and glowing orb.

In addition, I wasn't certain why Liz's son's reliance on a battery pack to live wasn't considered un-human by the underground society -- or at least not so problematic that he is driven out or killed. And I admit I wasn't crazy about the contrived countdown on her son's battery life. But overall, I was touched by what Liz learned about the world above, and think this film showed a lot of promise.

Beautiful Dreamer
Director: David Gaddie
Screenwriters: David Gaddie, Steven Kelleher, Ken Liu
Length: 26:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction/Drama
Country: USA
Film trailer

This was my favorite film of the session. A mother with a terminal disease goes into space, taking advantage of relativistic time dilation to stretch out her remaining two years over the entire span of her daughter's lifetime. Because the spaceship presumably travels back and forth between Earth and some distant point, the mother is able to visit her daughter Amy for 24 hours once every seven years.

Contrived? Yes, but since relativistic time dilation actually exists, this is a scenario that could happen. And naturally, the effect of this film is that every viewer is likely to ask him or herself whether they would make the same choice as this mother did. As she says in the film, she gets to experience much less of her daughter's life, but also much more. Is it selfish of her to indulge her desire to see her daughter grow up, even though her daughter will have to mourn her many times instead of once?

As to the film itself, it was very well acted, and I absolutely adored the background special effects showing that this was a future Earth: moving holographic photographs, high-speed monorails, drones flying everywhere. These effects were beautifully integrated without taking over the story. The only effect I didn't like was the choice to show the mother moving through trees, with inexplicable white birds superimposed on the screen, every time she traveled. But this is a minor thing. I also liked the use of red against a primarily gray-tone background in a number of scenes.

Story-wise, I found it predictable that Amy at one point reaches the sullen young adult phase and refuses to speak to her mother, but, well, that's likely what would happen in real life, so I can't truly complain about it. I was unsure why the mother's husband initially seemed very supportive of the mother's choice but disappeared after, I think, two visits. I would assume he would move on in his own life, but I'm not sure why he would refuse to see her at all. Of course it would be painful, especially as he continued to age, but I would have expected they would have thought that through before she made her decision.

In any case, this was very moving, and I'd be surprised if there was a dry eye anywhere in that theater. (And people think science fiction is all about robots and laser beams!)

It wasn't until writing this post that I looked in the catalog and saw Ken Liu's name among the screenwriters for this film. As it happens, Ken is a short story writer whose work I've long admired. You can read the very short story upon which this film is based at Daily Science Fiction. (Incidentally, if you like science fiction in bite-size chunks, Daily Science Fiction is a great place to find just that.

[Edited to add: I just read the story, and I LOVE its economy. It's only 997 words, yet it is the story we saw in the film. The filmmakers did a terrific job adding to it without changing it, especially the nightclub scene. Wow!]

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Click here for my post on this year's "Comedy Shorts." My next post will be on Sunday's "Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts" -- stay tuned!

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

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