Colony: a stereotyped sci-fi horror treatment of colonisation and possession

Catherine Bonny, “Colony” (2018)

Partly informed by the history of early European settlement in Australia, as well as perhaps stories of the treatment of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe, this short film combines dystopian science fiction, horror, revenge with its unexpected consequences, and the relationship of colonialists with the land they settle and with that land’s original inhabitants. In particular, this film examines how the original inhabitants of the land react to the presence of the alien colonists and how they might punish those who damage and devastate their environment by infiltrating those they wish to strike.

In the distant future, a prison colony is established on a distant planet. Sardonically named “Heaven”, the prison colony is located near the seashore and its female inmates, under the watchful supervision of their male guards, are forced to farm vegetables and fruit in very harsh conditions. The food they manage to grow does not sustain them much and they progressively grow weak. In this prison live two sisters, Rhian (Emma Burnside) and Seren (Alicia Hellingman), the latter of whom was apparently smuggled by Rhian onto the spaceship that brought them to the desolate planet in defiance of the rules that stipulated that only fit people could board the craft. Rhian has an arrangement with one guard in which he provides whatever medicine he can in exchange for sex. As the days go by, and the two women try to negotiate their way through the hostility and jealousy of the other women prisoners, and the caprices of the guards, Rhian is drawn to the sea that laps the shores and breaks over the rocks of the coast: ghost voices and rattling sounds call to her and when she looks at the ocean, a strange light appears beneath the waves and beckons to her. When she gashes her leg on a rock and the wound is severe, the seawater heals the wound and when she retrieves an old brown apple that she has thrown into the water, it becomes green and new.

One day the guards trick Rhian into bringing Seren to them by telling her they have medicine but Rhian discovers the ruse too late. The two women fight the guards but Seren comes off the worse for her encounter and Rhian is unable to save her. Rhian vows vengeance for her sister’s death and the strange forces in the sea beckon her with promises to help – but as with her earlier arrangement with the guard, what this natural world wants from her is more than she reckoned with.

The film is rather uneven in its pacing: for much of its running time until the last few minutes, it is quite slow and leisurely, delineating the nature of the colony, the hierarchy that exists, and the two sisters’ uncertain place within it. Then violence happens abruptly and Rhian, stopped by the voices in her head, appears curiously apathetic. The conclusion takes place some time after Seren’s death – a day perhaps, maybe even a week, a month, a year later – and despite its casual tone, a few changed details in Rhian’s appearance tell us that the forces that Rhian aligns with are going to be horrific, and that Heaven will soon become Hell.

It is a pity that the film is slow to develop the relationships of the people in Heaven as they come across as stereotypes rather than people we would care about. Even Rhian ends up no more than a rather selfish and mercenary young woman, susceptible to manipulation in situations where the benefits might outweigh the costs. She ends up meeting more than her match in the alien environment but the alien possession and colonisation of her mind and body produce a stereotyped monster.

The film’s treatment of its themes and ideas turns out somewhat shallow and cliched. Perhaps if the pace had been a bit quicker and the plot tighter, the action might have been better spread out in the 14-minute running time, and the price Rhian pays for avenging her sister’s death could have been elaborated in more depth. The actors might have had more time and opportunity to explore their characters and given them more complexity as they confront the harsh prison conditions and pressures, and the unforgiving alien environment that will soon kill them viciously.

They Watch: a dystopian sci-fi film of the oppressed being used to oppress others

Andre LeBlanc, “They Watch” (2016)

In the near future, a mother and her teenage son living in small-town America are under siege from an oppressive police-state bureaucracy using an ingenious surveillance system that exploits prison labour as disembodied spies and snitches. The teenage son has been secretly working to expose the corruption of the system by helping to edit and distribute copies of a samizdat-style newspaper called The Truth; this act of defiance has brought him and his mother to the attention of the authorities who use the astral bodies of prisoners to invisibly infiltrate the homes of people suspected of dissident activity and to passively report back to their controllers via technology that sees what the prisoners see and broadcast it back to the controllers. One of the two prisoners sent to spy on the boy and his mum turns out to have a connection with the boy, and this poses a moral dilemma for the prisoner. Whatever decision he takes will lead either to his own death or to the capture and certain torture and imprisonment of the teenage boy and his mother, with death in custody or capital punishment a very likely fate for either or both of them.

The film does have a slick Hollywood-style about it: it runs smoothly with quite good credible special effects; but at the same time, it does have sloppy presentation and editing. The logic of the narrative does have holes: it seems unbelievable that a hi-tech surveillance system would make such a blunder as to assign the astral body of a prisoner who once taught the teenage boy debating in high school to spying on the boy. (Though of course the databases we have that collect vast amounts of information about people for future blackmailing purposes would not be 100% infallible and there is the possibility that such databases would assign stalkers to observe people they know and care for.) Setting alight a pile of papers in a closed room seems to be asking for trouble; viewers might find themselves rooting for the secret police to bust down the doors before the kid and his mum suffocate from lack of oxygen.

The plot idea is of the sort that the 1990s television series “The X Files” might well turn its nose up at: it’s a hokey mishmash of hard science fiction and ghost thriller fantasy. The idea that has been done to death in some form or another: the state co-opting prisoners into snitching on other, perhaps innocent people for very little reward. Surely the use of astral bodies to do things that ordinary people and even AI technology can’t do seems far-fetched, especially if the astral bodies turn out to have minds of their own. Nevertheless the idea of an oppressive system using those it oppresses as slaves to enforce extreme conformity and cut off dissidence is one that will continue to disturb audiences long after they have seen this film.

Dejeuner sur l’herbe: a character study that skewers intellectual and religious arrogance

Jules Bourges, Jocelyn Charles, Nathan Harbonn Viaud, Pierre Rougemont,”Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2019)

A droll character study of a scientist called Etienne initially dedicated to pursuing truth and logic, experiencing a crisis of faith after being stood up by a female friend at a beach and seeing an apparent UFO, and refusing to speak to anyone and to carry on as usual with his career for seven years, this film punctures both intellectual arrogance and the arrogance of religious fanaticism alike. By presenting its narrative through Etienne’s viewpoint, the short immediately captures and maintains viewer attention, steadily increasing the tension of the scientist’s descent into a raving religious lunatic until the clanger drops with regard to what the UFO silhouette actually was all those seven years ago.

The animation can be a bit bizarre: characters are drawn rather crudely with oversized heads and tiny mouths, while backgrounds and especially the movements of the sea and waves are done with much care for detail so the lapping waters and the shadows that appear and break up constantly over them look real. The characters themselves though are not very well developed and the animation and narrative rely heavily on the voice actors to make the characters seem more than angst-ridden millennial-born stereotypes.

While the narrative does have holes in parts, and the notion that a scientist or academic could be so easily fooled by a very mundane everyday object in the natural world – which in itself says something about how estranged humanity has become from nature and, by implication, reality – the film deals with its themes and the way in which the narrative develops and unfurls very deftly. One finds oneself sympathising and commiserating with Etienne while also laughing at him.

Orbit: adaptation of famous Edgar Allan Poe story enquires into the fragility of identity

Nicholas Camp, Don Thiel III, “Orbit” (2019)

A clever re-telling of the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, this short film explores the impact of extreme physical isolation on an individual’s psychology. The narrator / protagonist (Chris Cleveland) is an astronaut working with a much older and more experienced colleague (Jacob Witkin, in his last role before he died not long afterwards) in a spacecraft orbiting a giant exoplanet in the far reaches of space. The old fellow’s coloured glass eye infuriates the younger man for some reason and the latter plots the man’s death. Sure enough, after despatching the old fellow, the astronaut hides his body under the floor panels but the spacecraft registers the death and sends a signal out to space-station HQ. Two officers (Jasmine Kaur and David Competello) promptly fly out to the craft and interrogate the astronaut. During interrogation, the astronaut is irritated by a growing ringing in his ears, which he is convinced is the heartbeat of his victim, and though the officers seem satisfied with his explanation regarding the old man’s death, the astronaut ends up confessing to his crime and shows the horrified officers where he has buried the corpse.

Set in the style of low-budget science fiction films of the 1970s – 1990s – the various incarnations of the “Star Trek” television series and spin-off movies come to mind – the short does a capable job in portraying the obsessive monomania and growing psychosis in the astronaut (though he is always in danger of falling into a stock villainous character type and the actor would have been well advised to be rid of his beard). Quick editing and interspersing the scenes of the interrogation with shots of the murder, other violence and some small amounts of gore stoke and increase the tension. The music soundtrack is of Wagnerian orchestral excess applied in discreet and tasteful amounts to amplify the drama at crucial points in the plot while maintaining the classic Hollywood style of space-opera science fiction films.

The film’s conclusion suggests a rather different fate for the narrator than most adaptations of the Poe story have previously done and posits the paradoxical notion that physical isolation, rather than increasing or accentuating a person’s individuality and identity (to his/her fellows) but instead breaks it down. The glass eye is given much greater importance in this adaptation of the Poe story than in the original story itself; it truly becomes a mirror of the blankness of the soul behind it.

Clean Cut: short whimsical sci-fi black comedy of an unlikely serial killer in the making

Andrew Hunt, “Clean Cut” (2015)

From DUST, an online channel specialising in screening science fiction films made by up-and-coming film-makers comes this very amusing and cheeky horror comedy short starring an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner. Roomba keeps the floors of its owner’s house spotlessly clean and the film also hints that the robot does double duty as a security guard. One night a burglar (Scott Jorgenson) breaks into the house but suffers a heart attack and spills his life-saving tablets all over the floor. Lying helplessly supine on the floor, he implores Roomba to save him by passing the tablets over but Roomba hoovers them up and the burglar dies. In a remarkable and breathtaking bird’s-eye point-of-view shot with the wooden floor as backdrop, Roomba zooms up and down: each time it zooms up the floor, it is carrying plastic bags, tape and an already bloodied electric saw. We hear noises of cutting from off-screen, then Roomba zooms down dragging the bag full of wrapped body parts!

From this moment on, though there is not much left of the film, we get subtle hints of Roomba’s growing self-awareness (the machine pauses to gaze at its bloodied reflection in a mirror) and the beginnings of an emotional life (it angrily flashes red when its owner verbally abuses it after all the work it has done for him). Viewers are left in no doubt that a new if rather gruesome vocation beckons for Roomba and the owner had better watch his own back.

While the plot is laughable and wouldn’t bear more than a five-minute short before it thins out, the film maintains audience interest by filming at the Roomba’s level and emphasising a minimalist approach to its story and characters with lots of close-up shots. The whimsical music adds to the general improbable theme of an ordinary, even banal household gadget, cute to look at and for toddlers to ride, having a secret life as a serial killer capable of emotions and having the motivation to choose its victims and plot its next murders. Even the smallest, most harmless-looking object, provided it has sufficient intelligence, can become a killing machine monster.

Protocole Sandwich: a likeable and subversive commentary on conformism, hysteria and denial in Western society

Valerie Bousquie, Josephine Meis, Antoine Vignon, Benjamin Warnitz, “Protocole Sandwich” (2019)

This very likeable and comic-strip-styled animation comes across as a satirical commentary on conformism, mass hysteria and mass denial in Western society. A group of rangers called the Sandwich Protocol are sent to monitor suspicious activity around an antenna tower installation of some sort in a remote desert. The rangers use handheld guns that look like portable electric fans to dispel apparent glitches in their world of reality. They use these guns on an elderly woman and her pet raven: the woman survives (so she’s real enough) but the raven fails the test and is packed away in a special box to be taken back to HQ. During a lunch-break, one of the rangers decides to check something at the antenna itself and discovers something that looks like a sabotage attempt. He is accosted by a strange man who is trying to tell him something and to demonstrate it as well …

Although at the time I saw it, the film had no English-language subtitles, the visual narrative suggests that the rangers themselves are employed to maintain an artificial semblance of reality and the elderly woman and the strange man represent threats to that particular Matrix. The strange man in particular is trying to convince the ranger that he and his fellow rangers have been deceived to believe that they live in the real world when in fact they don’t and the real world actually exists outside the artificial world their masters have created. This means that the raven dies because it is a real creature and not a product of the artificial world of the film. The rangers treat the woman and the stranger as though they are infected by a mysterious and deadly disease, and their desert world as potentially dangerous.

While the stranger ends up being subdued by the rangers in a black box and they leave the box in the charge of the ranger who first encountered the fellow, that ranger seems to have absorbed enough of the stranger’s ranting message that he appears ready to open the box and release the disruptive chaos that will destroy the artificial desert world and reveal the real world. At this point the film ends leaving the audience to speculate what the ranger might do: will he obey and conform just as he has always done or will his curiosity overcome habit?

The animation resembles a Tintin comic strip and the gadgets that the rangers in their special hermetic suits use to combat the dangers of the real world intruding into their careful virtual digital world are very comic. These weapons, the protective clothing the rangers wear and the triangular symbols on their uniforms are hilariously subversive comments on the extreme collective hysteria present in Western society that seeks to stamp out heterodox opinion and information and enforce a cult-like outlook and ideology. Even the food the rangers eat – sandwich triangles – shows the intrusive extent of their brainwashing. The colours are bright and call attention to the unreality of the world that the rangers believe is real. The glitches, representing tears in the virtual world (and suggesting how unstable it is), are beautifully done; in a climactic scene, they turn the animation into a gorgeously psychedelic riot of colour and imagery. As is usual in Gobelins shorts, the voice acting is superb and makes the action seem more real than it actually is.

While the plot will not bear a treatment longer than its six to seven minutes, it already packs considerable information about the kind of dysfunctional society that exists in its world and how freedom and reality are physically so close to humans and yet still so far away.

Dogs: a metaphor for the psychological and other effects of global war and violence

Mohammad Babakoohi, Jakob Bednarz, Benjamin Berrebi, Diego Cristofano, Théo Noble, Karlo Pavicic-Ravlic, Marthinus van Rooyen, “Dogs” (2019)

One of the longer films in the Gobelins 2019 graduation students’ batch of animated shorts eagerly awaited by the French animation school’s fans around the world, “Dogs” is a metaphor for the chaos and psychological effects of war and brutal violence on humans. The action takes place during World War II, about the period of the Warsaw Uprising. A Polish resistance fighter with a rifle (but no taste for killing) escapes a burning city and travels through open countryside in search of a new home. He sees a huge tree with a generous canopy in the middle of an endless meadow and walks towards it but is attacked by a huge savage dog chained to the tree. The man manages to climb into its branches but is stuck while the canine sentry patrols the area around the tree. Day passes into night and while the man is dozing, another dog sneaks into the area and is promptly set upon by the guard dog. During the fight between the two animals, the man is able to sneak down the tree and retrieve his rifle. The guard dog, having killed the other dog, menaces the man who must now decide whether to defend himself by killing the guard dog or be killed …

The beauty of the rural scenes and the cloudy skies, looking rather like oil paintings, belie the chaotic and violent conditions of the world in which this animation is set. The large tree in particular is portrayed as gorgeous and lush, and the guardian dog is vicious, even cannibalistic. Generally the live characters are drawn a bit more crudely than the background scenery but this may be deliberate: war may have dragged living things back to the edge of savagery, though so far it has spared some scenes of natural forest and grasslands. The scenes of burning cities at the beginning and the ending of the film suggest an unending cycle of war, brutality and violence as each new generation entering the world is dragged into this cycle.

The symbolism of the characters can be rather dense and multi-layered. Wooden as it is, the tree is a significant character perhaps representing a bridge between the hellish landscapes of the world and a better world where violence and war are unknown. The savage dog chained to the tree and apparently guarding it may be doing so on behalf of divine masters, so as to prevent ordinary human beings from climbing it and reaching out to the heavens. Significantly the man’s destination turns out to be a burning city – is it the burning city he left at the beginning or is it another city? – to which the entry is a gate over which a three-headed dog (in Greek mythology, this would be Cerberus guarding the entry to the kingdom of the dead) stands as if in triumph. Would the city have been on fire if the tree had not been on fire because of what happens between the man and the guardian dog? Does the city represent the Hell of war, of chaos, of mass prison / concentration camps, and of genocides?

For a film of its length, “Dogs” makes quite deep demands of its audience to ponder how war and brutality ultimately brutalise living beings such as the man and the guardian dog, and whether the man ultimately accepts his destiny to be a killer of humans (at the cost of losing his humanity) if only to defend and save himself.

Out of Range: a study of character transformation through personal crisis and breakdown

Cécile Guillard, Lana Choukroune, Yijia Cao, “Out of Range” (2019)

In the Gobelins animated universe, the most mundane incidents can give rise to major transformations in a person’s life, so much so that we can almost say that person has experienced a kind of death and been born anew. So it is with the sole character in this 4-minute short: Sue, a busy and harassed lawyer, is on her way to meet with a client on a rainy day. The expected meeting forces her to drive on a highway through unfamiliar countryside. The car breaks down and Sue has to pound her way through a forest with only her mobile phone to light her way during the encroaching twilight darkness and a steady rain. Along the way she loses some important papers, the phone falls into a puddle and goes flat, and she is bothered and hampered by annoying insects and a low-lying branch. She falls over and sees her reflection in a puddle – a reflection of her harried workaholic self – and ends up collapsing into an ocean that engulfs and deposits her into a sunny open-meadow paradise of rippling long grass under pale blue skies, the whole scene bearing an uncanny resemblance to country backgrounds in Studio Ghibli movies.

The film’s use of colour emphasises the different worlds Sue crosses through in her mental collapse: reality is portrayed in various harsh textures of grey and dark colours; the post-breakdown world is made up of soft pastel colours. Before her collapse, Sue is ill at ease with the flora and fauna of the forest: she trips over tree roots and mosquitoes and dragonflies bother her to no end. Post-collapse, Sue begins to wonder and marvel at the natural world around her and attempts to hold butterflies in her hands. The most astonishing work in the film though is in the flood that engulfs Sue and sweeps her away into a new world with harsh use of black and white imagery while she fights the rising waters but is later forced to succumb.

While the story is quite simple and is open to many interpretations, it never feels stale due to the strong character creation and build-up with an excellent voice-acting performance from Isabelle Guiard as Sue. You can really feel Sue’s frustration and slight sense of panic as she goes deeper into the forest and gets lost. Sue’s character is well-defined enough and at the same time generic enough – we don’t know her history and background but we can guess at parts of it – for viewers to readily identify with her. This film certainly repays watching.

The Lost Breakfast: amusing animation on how chaos invades and disrupts order and control through daily rituals

Q-rais, “The Lost Breakfast” (2015)

Where some cartoonists treat the weekday early morning ritual of getting up and getting ready to go to work, including the full ritual of cooking and eating breakfast, as a dreary dull and robotic exercise that robs people of their will and humanity, Japanese cartoonist Q-rais sees in it an opportunity to have fun and explore what happens when that ritual and the autopilot mind it requires are disrupted. A man rises at 7 am when his alarm clock rings; throwing open the bed covers, he examines his foot and finds a mysterious puncture wound in the sole with blood on it. He looks outside his bedroom window and sees a black crow perched on a tree branch, looking as if it might know who made that wound but pretending innocence. The man goes off, shaves and deposits his shavings into a tissue which he then neatly folds, does his ablutions and takes his tissue into the kitchen. There, he cooks himself sausages and an egg omelette, makes his toast and tea, and deposits the tea-bag onto the folded tissue. He eats his breakfast while watching the morning weather forecast and news on TV. Having done all that, he gets dressed for work and leaves his home. So far, so good.

The next day, bang on 7 am, the alarm clock rings again, and our man prepares for the day. Again, he finds the mysterious puncture wound on the sole of his foot; again he looks outside his bedroom window but the crow is not waiting on the tree branch. No matter, the man goes about his routine as usual; but once he puts the tea bag on the tissue, suddenly the crow flies through the bedroom window and attacks him on the neck with its beak. The man drops his cup of tea, forcing him to get another cup with another tea bag; but on seeing the first tea bag sitting on the tissue, the man goes into a frenzy repeating parts of his morning ritual over and over, and out of order, until (in a surreal burst of animation) reality fragments and rearranges itself, and the man goes cataleptic.

The animation may be rather crude and simple, and figures and objects are more fluid than they perhaps ought to be, but a playful energy is at work and the very nature of the morning ritual down to its details seems to invite questioning of what it’s all for and why. It appears to be an attack on complacency and on society’s insistence on shutting down people’s individuality and creativity, and on controlling people through their daily rituals. The crow may represent an intrusion of Nature, of the chaos and the freedom (and maybe the fear of the unknown that freedom brings) within that chaos that threaten orderly but mechanised lives. Q-rais obviously had a lot of fun creating this short cartoon and while it might not stand repeated viewings, it certainly is fun to watch the first time round.

Pour la France: emphasising the common humanity of two opposed sides in their potential for mutual understanding and violence

Vincent Chansard, “Pour la France” (2019)

Set in Paris during the so-called La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) in May 1871, during which time the French Army put down the Paris Commune government and ended two months of experimental socialist government, this film exudes energy and passion for its subject matter, posits a difficult dilemma in which personal ethics clash with one’s loyalties, and emphasises the common humanity of the socialist revolutionaries and the soldiers alike, both in their potential for understanding one another and learning the truth about each other, and in reacting in blind rage and resorting to violence and murder over mutual understanding. The film centres around an army sergeant, Mercier, who treasures a book (Victor Hugo’s “Confessions of a Condemned Man”) given him by a teacher back in 1848, and a revolutionary, Lorraine Mazin, who happens to be that teacher. After the French Army storms the barricades set up by the Paris Commune, Mercier and Mazin are reunited unexpectedly by less than ideal circumstances in which Mazin is one of a number of revolutionaries arrested and condemned to death – and Mercier happens to be part of the shooting squad. Needless to say, teacher and former student recognise each other.

Does Mercier go ahead and obey his general’s orders? If he does, he’ll be a hypocrite and he knows it; if he doesn’t, his own life will be in danger. By reading the Victor Hugo book, Mercier reveals himself to be a thoughtful man already dissatisfied with aspects of mainstream French society of his day, dominated by small, politically and socially conservative, even repressive elites and the powerful Roman Catholic Church. His teacher Mazin may be a revolutionary but she tempers her zeal with reason, telling her fellow revolutionaries not to kill the monks and priests (which they do anyway). When the two meet again, both soundlessly realise the unexpected ethical dilemma and crisis facing Mercier.

The film’s animation is forceful and energetic. Backgrounds featuring scenes of realistic-looking fires are unforgettable. Human characters are roughly and minimally drawn with somewhat exaggerated features, enough to distinguish one person from the next. Characters who lack self-awareness are portrayed with shaded eyes or shut eyes; only significant characters or characters with self-knowledge are portrayed with open eyes. This seems to say something about human nature generally, that in most societies (especially Western societies), most people seem to go about their business on autopilot and are lacking in self-knowledge.

Compared to some other Gobelins short films I have seen, this film does look very good and has a distinct style but the story it tells is not quite as powerful as those of the other films, perhaps because it runs like an excerpt of a much longer imaginary film and the characters are not well developed enough for viewers to care about them.