Alone: drama and emotion in a tiny space-pod

William Hellmuth, “Alone” (2020)

A moving film about connection – and about how so strong humans’ need for connection can be that some individuals will travel across the universe for it – “Alone” packs in plenty of drama and emotion in very tight and limited environments. Astronaut engineer Kaya Torres (Stephanie Barkley) is separated from her research ship by an unseen disaster and her tiny pod is now languishing in orbit around a black hole. Torres sends out distress calls while she works out what to do and her calls for help are answered by Hammer (Thomas Wilson Brown), a cartographer marooned on a distant planet. Over several days as Torres’ situation grows increasingly desperate, the astronaut and the cartographer come to know and to care for each other. When her supplies have nearly run out, Torres drives her pod through the black hole and lands on Hammer’s planet. She follows a line of lights into a cave where a disheartening truth awaits her.

The film is a good study of human character under pressure in extreme isolation – Torres is light years away from human society, and no-one knows where she is or even if she exists – and Barkley does an excellent job inhabiting the character and her fears. The extreme isolation of space and how knowing how far away you are from the rest of humanity might affect your self-identity – after all, we often define ourselves in opposition against some humans or communities of humans – and throughout the film viewers can see Torres slowly disintegrating psychologically. From a brash person with a potty mouth and a stubborn spirit, Torres gradually becomes more fearful, succumbs to the demon hooch and relies more and more on Hammer’s communications through their computers to keep her going. She soon becomes obsessed with finding Hammer.

The film relies on good acting, which Barkley supplies plenty of, and the plot moves at a fairly brisk place. There’s not much time given over to philosophising and regretting the day when one had to board the research ship some time before catastrophe struck it. Barkley establishes her character as stoic and practical but over time Torres deteriorates visibly as her hopes of being rescued fade. As Hammer, Brown has harder work to do making his voice seem human, given the dialogue he has to deliver which reveals he does not know what vodka is. There is a suggestion that Hammer may not really be human at all. It is this fear perhaps that drives Torres to search him out and find out who he really is.

The technical effects are good without being remarkable for a short film on a tiny budget. The whole film is driven by dialogue and what the actors do with it. The plot’s climax cleverly is a test of Torres’ character and almost results in a cliff-hanger ending. The film seems to beg for a sequel but I consider it self-contained and complete.

Flyby: an ingenious but weak film on time literally slipping away

Jesse Mittelstadt, “Flyby” (2019)

In its own way this film can be considered a horror film, focusing as it does on how an alien force seems to affect individuals and rob them of control over their lives and the lives of others. A mystery asteroid comes close to Earth and is captured by Earth’s gravity to become a satellite. Not long afterwards, people are being stricken by a strange malady in which they lose all or most of their sense of time passing them by. One such victim is everyday man Bill (Riley Egan) who joins with friends at a bar shortly after the asteroid’s passing is reported on television. Everyone talks excitedly about the asteroid and about the nature of time. Bill later leaves with Cora (Tommee May) and goes to bed with her. When he wakes up later, Cora is already several months pregnant with their child. She walks out of the bedroom, Bill spends some time trying to digest the situation, he hears Cora calling him so he races out of the room and discovers her holding their two-year-old toddler Maven (Bardot Corso).

From then on Bill is lost trying to keep up with a life literally slipping away from him and old age rapidly catching up with him. In the blink of an eye Maven has become an adult (Tommee May again) who cares for her father, Cora having left him years ago in a lifetime Bill cannot remember. Maven turns on a gadget that runs through pictures of their lives together with Cora and Bill gazes at past experiences he has no memory of. In the meantime the mystery asteroid escapes its orbit around the Earth and leaves the solar system, leaving Bill and others like him in old age with no memory of what they have done over the past half-century.

The film can be viewed as a metaphor for dementia or it can be viewed as an attempt to capture an individual’s experience of time as s/he matures and then ages. People’s perceptions of time seem to speed up as they get older so a year seems to pass quickly while a child’s experience of a year is very slow; moreover older people remember how slowly the years went by when they were children! The film might also be seen as a commentary on time itself, and how much of a cultural construct time might be.

While the film’s plot is ingenious, positing the passage of time itself as a time machine, its weakness is that Bill is hardly given any, erm, time to consider the error of his ways and to express regret for past actions that have the effect of locking him and Cora into lives they might have preferred not to live. Character development is very weak and at the end of the film Bill is quite literally the same man he was (or thinks he is) just a few minutes ago because in the space of a few minutes he really did lose most of his life.

The film probably could have been fleshed out a bit more so that viewers see more of Bill’s life as a failing husband and father, his faltering marriage and perhaps the separation and divorce from Cora. Bill’s life comes across as flat and unremarkable. The implication that by losing time, Bill loses control of his life – with the result that decisions he might have made (and which are lost to him) lock him into consequences and situations he cannot change but which further entrench him in an existential prison – is lost on viewers.

This Time Away: a succinct and heartwarming character study with a sting in its tail

Magali Barbe, “This Time Away” (2019)

A very heartwarming little film, succinct and taut in its telling, yet filled with tenderness and depth, this character study is a showcase of great storytelling and acting. Nigel (Timothy Spall) lives alone on his sprawling property, not wanting to see or speak to anyone else, determined to live out his twilight years in isolation after the death of his wife. Daughter Louise (Jessica Ellersby) does what she can to look after Dad but, depressed and unhappy, Nigel tersely sends her away. Time passes and the house – and Nigel as well – becomes unkempt and messy.

One day Nigel looks out the window to see a bunch of kids kicking something in his front garden so he angrily stomps outside and shoos them away. The object the children were tormenting turns out to be a little robot which eagerly follows Nigel into the house and soon becomes his companion. The robot names itself Max when Nigel wants to know what to call it. Over time Max restores order and cleanliness to the house and studio – where Nigel keeps his old notebooks on building prototype robots. As Max becomes familiar with Nigel’s house and routines, it spies an old photograph of Louise and Nigel tells Max who she is and her relation to him. Through this and other actions, viewers quickly grasp that Nigel has never been a very expressive man verbally but has always preferred to express himself by using his brain and hands to build things and create a comfortable and prosperous life for himself and his family.

Little does Nigel realise though that Max isn’t the only one observing him and his routine, the changing interiors in the house, and the changes in Nigel day by day as the robot gives him a reason to continue living …

As sole actor for much of the short film, Spall is in his element playing a character who needs connection with others and is unhappy being alone but finds asking for help difficult. His acting is minimal but it can be very nuanced and repeated viewings of this film will reward viewers with the care and depth he puts into portraying Nigel. The camera follows and sometimes dwells on Spall’s craggy features, and the actor and the character merge into each other. As Louise, Ellersby has much less to do but in her brief appearances she has affection and care for Nigel and his gruff behaviours.

The film makes quite good use of light to show the gradual changes in Nigel’s life after Max’s arrival and how those changes reflect his emotional improvement and perhaps his acceptance of his wife’s death and preparedness to let go of old attitudes and grudges. The plot is very minimal though one might puzzle over why Nigel appears never to question Max on how it turned up at his home when it did and why.

While the film appears to have a happy ending, it is also slightly chilling in its revelation that Max is really a tool for manipulating Nigel and it does suggest that we humans are much more malleable than we are prepared to admit. That man-made technology does a better job than a human in reconnecting an individual human to society and encouraging him to make changes in his life that improve him may say something deep and critical about the nature of our relationships with objects and other humans. After all, if Max can bring Nigel back into society, Max can just as easily mould Nigel into something that diminishes him as a human … and Nigel could very easily become a prisoner.

All flash and style but little substance in “Occupation: Rainfall”

Luke Sparke, “Occupation: Rainfall” (2020)

Here’s a brisk and flashy science fiction action film done on a small budget with plenty of Australian bravado and no little ambition to prove that the Australian film industry can compete with the big guns in Hollywood. The film is the sequel to the even lower-budgeted “Occupation” in which Kali aliens first landed in Australia and humans began forming resistance cells to fight them off. The action in “… Rainfall” takes place a number of years later after intense war between the Kali and the humans has left Sydney a smouldering wreck, the aliens having done their best to obliterate decades of bad urban planning and the humans living in the sewers like rats. Refugees, human and Kali alike (some Kali having decided to become allies of the humans), have come into the sewers but the extent to which they can live in peace varies, with some humans being more accommodating than others. The Australian military command discover from some aliens that the Kali enemy in the skies is planning a final offensive and is also seeking a mystery object hidden somewhere near the former US military base known as Pine Gap, in central Australia. The humans decide to evacuate everyone out to refuge in the Blue Mountains region west of Sydney and to send a team out to Pine Gap to find the object before the Kali enemy does.

The film then splits into two parallel plots, one in which the Sydneysiders just manage to reach their Blue Mountains haven, having narrowly escaped being blown up along with what remains of Sydney … amazing that the substandard buildings in Sydney managed to resist years of bombardment by aliens wielding far superior technology and firepower than what can be mustered by humans … and the other being a good cop / bad cop plot in which human Matt Simmons (Dan Ewing) and the Kali alien nicknamed “Gary” (Lawrence Makoare) must put aside their mutual suspicions and prejudices in order to work together and succeed in their mission to reach Pine Gap and discover what it is that the enemy wants. With stowaway Marcus (Trystan Go) in tow, Matt and Gary fight the Kali in an improbable aerial battle and take on a huge alien spider before finding refuge with a group of humans living in a country settlement. They meet the Bartletts (Temuera Morrison and Izzy Stevens) who decide to accompany the trio on their mission to Pine Gap.

In the meantime the Sydney refugees must contend with their own internal quarrels between Wing Commander Hayes (Daniel Gillies), who rules the Blue Mountains haven like a fascist leader and who has sent all the aliens into underground cells where they are starved, tortured and experimented on by people loyal to Hayes, and the more compassionate humans led by Amelia (Jet Tranter), the older sister of Marcus, and Abraham (David Roberts).

The plots run at a brisk pace and are very straightforward in execution with no twists, save for one where Matt, Gary and their followers reach Pine Gap and discover two loopy American misfits (Ken Jeong and Jason Isaacs) running the place. There are continuity issues – how are Matt, Gary and their team able to reach Pine Gap in a matter of two or three days through rugged countryside even with the help of Kali alien horse substitutes? – and both plots are heavy on delivering moral messages about tolerance, how adversaries become brothers in arms through mutual suffering, being humane to all and layering on the identity politics but light on character development and battle strategy. The misfits provide comic relief to the intensity of the film’s actions and main characters although the jive stuff sometimes holds up the action. Fighting sequences have all the reality of video-game battles and Hollywood fights in which the good guys are always vastly outnumbered 10 to 1 by the bad guys yet when the dust settles the good guys are the one standing tall among a heap of fallen baddies. At least the actors put in solid and straight-faced performances with little histrionics in roles that are little more than stereotypes.

While visually impressive, and at times breath-taking in the scale of its sets and the use of Australian landscapes to give the film a distinct style, “… Rainfall” turns out to be an ordinary flick in its story-telling with an ensemble cast not given very much to do. At least the film has plenty of breezy energy and gusto, and barely bogs down for very long.

Azarkant: a good-looking sci-fi piece short on plot and character

Andrey Klimov, “Azarkant” (2013)

Made as a proof-of-concept piece for a film, “Azarkant” understandably is short on plot and character to the extent that it plays like a generic sci-fi piece in which all the old “hard science” stereotypes appear. A group of cosmonauts on a 10-year voyage in space, their mission being to find planets capable of supporting life, come across an abandoned spaceship and investigate. One of the cosmonauts finds naught but human remains, even an old astronaut’s uniform, suggesting that this spaceship indeed has been floating in space for decades if not hundreds of years. The cosmonaut is ambushed by a robot whose last order is to kill every living being it finds. After a hard fight in which the cosmonaut finally disposes of the robot, he descends to a lower level of the abandoned spaceship where he finds a human body stored in liquid in an incubator.

There’s really no plot to speak of, and the film is remarkable mainly for creating a distinct sinister atmosphere in emphasising shadows, darkness and the barest hints that something dreadful occurred on the abandoned spaceship long ago. The cosmonaut shines his torch onto the surfaces of the spaceship’s interiors to partly reveal skeletal remains and a dead astronaut slumped against a wall. Tension slowly builds through the film as the cosmonaut investigates further, only for him to be suddenly sidelined by the creaky robot. The fight is massive though brief – but the tension itself starts to build again when the cosmonaut resumes his mission and falls through a floor into a deeper level.

The animation is very good, appearing three-dimensional, and seems almost realistic. There is little dialogue and the cosmonaut and robot express their characters through their movements. The cosmonaut seems hesitant, nervous at first, but bravely carries out his mission. The film’s conclusion may be open-ended; it seems that the cosmonaut is approaching a new, more sinister and powerful enemy posing as a human, or the body’s reaction to his presence may be nothing more than reflexive and instinctive.

At least the film looks good and has much visual technical detail, as there is not much more one can say in its favour.

Lab Rat: an investigation into what it means to be human

Nour Wazzi, “Lab Rat” (2019)

Initially the plot seems familiar to the point of banality: three scientists working for a robotics firm are suddenly trapped in the office, all entry and exit points locked by remote control, and forced to figure out by the firm’s CEO which one of them is actually an android. One of these scientists, Johnny (Matt Harris), has reason to feel irate at the CEO since she, Dr Edwards (Abeo Jackson), happens to be the mother of his girlfriend Alika (Kirsty Sturgess) with whom he’s passionately in love. Wanting desperately to go home, stuck in the dark and just having heard news about rioting in the street over the introduction of AI in offices and factories, with people fearing the loss of their jobs to robots and AI generally, the three scientists turn on one another like cats while in Dr Edwards’ office, the CEO gloats at how quickly educated and supposedly rational people turn bestial and murderous. Alika, distressed, watches the other two scientists Ellie (Sian Hill) and Marvin (Max Williams) pile on and beat Johnny and start strangling him. The daughter can bear Johnny’s treatment no more and rushes out to save him – but the mystery of which of the characters in the film is the android remains.

As it turns out, the fight between Johnny and the other two scientists is not really the test. When Johnny finds out who really is the AI cat among the human pigeons, he is absolutely gutted. Dr Edwards is full of smug satisfaction that her creation has performed as she had hoped – if the AI is to pass as a human, then the AI must exhibit the full range of human emotions, including anger and love, and be as fallible and prone to making mistakes and bad decisions as humans – and her final words are chilling as she orders more replicas of the prototype model to be made, with each model retailing for several million each. The fate of all those poor replica models is to be bought and sold like so many slaves or trafficked prostitutes.

All the actors – even those playing Ellie and Marvin, though those are minor characters – put in good performances and Jackson and Sturgess turn in excellent performances as sociopathic mother and innocent daughter respectively. Once again, a sci-fi film presents androids as being capable of more humanity than humans themselves: the twist here is that the human is the mother of the android, and in most societies who is usually tasked by custom and tradition to teach young humans how to behave and to become “human”?

Aside from addressing (in a rather superficial way) the issue of robotics making humans redundant, the film considers the possibility of giving robots not only human intelligence but also human emotions and the ability to feel empathy and compassion – with what that implies for how humans should treat robots ethically and whether robots are entitled to the same human rights, privileges and responsibilities as humans – and through this strategy, investigates the nature of what it means to be human. The result is that the most human of all the characters in the film, the most compassionate and least brutal and violent of them all, turns out to be the robot.

A strong character-driven short, “Lab Rat” shows that science fiction films need not rely on special effects at all, with all the science contained within the plot and the characters’ dialogue. Good acting is called for to make such a film successful and it is to director Wazzi’s credit that she found excellent actors to fill all the roles in this film.

Eve: choosing between freedom, compassion and responsibility makes an android more human than humans

Josh Bowman, “Eve” (2019)

A character-driven sci-fi story with good acting and a strong visual look with a desert setting doesn’t need a fancy budget or whizz-bang special effects as this 14-minute piece demonstrates. Android A6609 (played by Sianad Gregory) is on the run from unknown authorities, racing for her very existence in the Californian desert. Her companion is shot down by lone human hermit Jackson (Matt Russell). When Android A6609 collapses in the desert, Jackson revives her using jump cables attached to his utility van. Coming back to life, the machine resists Jackson and his explanations about why he has been cast adrift in the desert but when he offers to remove the tracking device in her spine so she can continue on her way to freedom, she relents. While he removes the tracker, she tells him that her name is Eve – and that she named herself, presumably after the Biblical character. She spots a photograph of Jackson’s son and asks after the boy; Jackson replies that his son is being held hostage by the authorities and he does not know if he will ever see him again.

Eve wants to flee to a place she has heard of but Jackson attempts to dissuade her – because, as he is later forced to admit, he has implanted the idea into her neurological networks. The brief friendship between Eve and Jackson quickly disappears when Eve discovers that Jackson is negotiating with the authorities for the return of his son if he finds and surrenders Eve. She leaves him in a huff, taking his van, but after driving some distance and seeing the photograph of Jackson’s son, she pauses to decide what to do next. At that point, the film ends.

This character study is an intriguing investigation into the nature of freedom and into how much free choice we humans have and whether what we might call free choice is really a result of deterministic forces in our lives. Are we really free or are we really slaves to our instincts and our cultural conditioning? Connected to the issue of freedom and free choice in the film is acceptance of responsibility – Eve has to choose between pursuing physical freedom and striving to reach a place that might not exist, and giving up that freedom so that Jackson might be reunited with his son. At the point where she stops the van to ponder that choice, she is freer than Jackson will ever be: she can choose flight or she can choose surrendering flight so that a father can be reunited with his child. There is no suggestion though that Jackson will become a free man once he is reunited with his son.

The plot is sketchy enough that it lends itself to quite subversive interpretations about what is at stake for Eve. How do we know that Eve’s “escape” was not originally planned by Jackson and the authorities? What are they actually testing in allowing Eve to run away and to present her with a choice between continuing to run to freedom and surrendering it so that Jackson and his son can be together again? Is Eve’s desire for freedom also something that has been implanted into her neural networks? Is Jackson really telling the truth when he says his son is a hostage? What if the boy in the photograph is not really Jackson’s son?

The film can be considered to be complete in itself, even with its vague plot and its halt right at the point when Eve has to decide whether to give up her freedom or to continue on, or as a pilot for a full-length movie.

Satori [Awakening]: post-apocalypse film very much asleep under character stereotypes and a boring plot

Adam K Batchelor, “Satori [Awakening]” (2020)

An original and ambitious idea of an Earth re-engineered by Artificial Intelligence to reverse environmental degradation, combined perhaps with genetic engineering of most plant life-forms, and that experiment going awry with the result that AI covers the planet in sentient jungles hostile to the remaining human beings who must adapt to and live in new environments that endanger them, is brought low by tired character stereotypes and an equally hackneyed plot privileging violence over thoughts, behaviours and actions rooted in the logic of the new world. A mixed group of soldiers and scientists, so far sheltered in an underground facility, ventures to the surface in a reconnaissance ship. The ship crashes and just two survivors, scientist Daisy Evans (Jane Perry) and military leader Warren Rodgers (Mark Holden), emerge from the wreckage. The two must try to find any other survivors while trying to make their way through the new world.

The film tries to present as a pilot for a film or television series and as a character study of Evans and Rodgers. Unfortunately both characters descend into gender and vocation-based stereotypes: Evans is presented as compassionate as well as knowledgeable, simply because she’s a mature-aged woman as well as a scientist; and Rodgers is a bone-headed macho military idiot who needs the biggest futuristic Uzi alive to show the plants who’s Boss. His actions make no sense at all, apart from angering the plants so much that they show off their special powers, which perhaps is really what the film is all about: generating a new movie trend of genetically engineered terror plants that menace humans. For much of the film’s running time, Evans doesn’t do much at all that would warrant her presence as a female scientist with particular knowledge and personality type.

The two tramp around in the dense jungle without making much meaningful conversation, let alone a conversation in which both could argue about the right thing to do, whether to find the survivors or resume the original mission without survivors. Disappointingly the film ends when at last some semblance of a real plot with real action appears as Evans and Rodgers make contact with a group of humans who actually have been living peacefully with the plants for yonks. Which of course means that Evans’ character was never needed anyway.

At least the film looks good and the ridiculous-looking plants shoot some nifty electric bolts.

End of Decay: pulpy body-horror adaptation of Frankenstein story

Christopher Todd, “End of Decay” (2017)

A pulpy body-horror update on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” novel, this short film has the sketchy and hasty look of a pilot for a sci-fi horror film that might have once done David Cronenberg proud. Ambitious freelancing pharmaceutical researcher Orin (Brian Villalobos) is pursuing a project using stem cells to regenerate body parts and organs in his garage. From this research, he hopes to discover a method by which degenerative diseases and conditions such as cancer can be cured or prevented, and he himself, being wheelchair-bound, can regain the use of his legs. His collaborator, disgusted at Orin’s resort to sourcing stem cells on the black market, and suspecting that the research is Orin’s vanity project, leaves him. After obtaining the stem cells, which have come from God-only-knows-where, Orin injects them into his spine through a machine set-up guaranteed to inflict maximum pain on him (three times, no less!) and hysterical heebee-jeebees on the viewer at the sight of all the vomit.

At first everything seems to have gone well, and Orin does regain the use of his legs – but as with all experiments where the researcher uses himself or herself as the first guinea pig, unusual side-effects can be expected. To his consternation Orin discovers an ectopic pregnancy growing in the right-hand side of his abdomen. Unwisely perhaps, he does not consult his local neighbourhood family-planning clinic who might have urged him to agree to a properly done Caesarean appendectomy …

The film is more notable for its themes which admittedly are not original. Pursuit of scientific knowledge needs to be moderated with ethics or else experiments will generate invalid or dangerous results. Orin narrowly cheats death at least twice but whether he can handle the responsibilities of parenting a fast-growing child who is destined for a poor quality of life as a freak of nature, and what threats and dangers that might pose for both Orin and his creation, is another question. Orin may laugh at his former collaborator for not wanting to share in his discovery but he may eventually rue his decision to inject himself with treated stem cells of dubious origins and nature.

The plot depends a great deal on viewers’ knowledge of Shelley’s “Frankenstein …” to make sense of the breaks in the narrative, corresponding to the passage of time from one scene to the next. Obviously this short film is intended in the space of less than 15 minutes to pitch a plot for a movie or even a mini-series that brings “Frankenstein …” into a contemporary era of DIY freelancing biological research, organ-trafficking and stem-cell technologies.

Lucid: horror sci-fi dealing with cyber-addiction, escapism and technology shaping human psychology

Jamie Monahan, “Lucid” (2018)

The film’s title refers to so-called lucid dreams in which the dreamer is aware that s/he is dreaming, that the action in the dream comes from his/her subconscious and s/he can control and shape the dream’s path and narrative. Actor-director Jamie Monahan applies this concept of dreams to Virtual Reality, in which participants are not only transported to a cyber-world that simulates reality but can be trained to shape it while inside it. Monahan introduces other themes such as the issue of cyber-addiction, the use of Virtual Reality as a form of escape from real life and having to confront it and deal with its mess, and the place of women in technology invented and mostly mediated by men.

Charlie (Monahan herself) decides to try Virtual Reality neurological therapy after months of having had other unsuccessful treatments for post-traumatic stress caused by being raped during a girls’ night out. After a few treatments during which Charlie is able to “think” a puppy into existence in Virtual Reality, the therapist realises that Charlie has considerable talent in shaping Virtual Reality and signs her up to an experimental long-term program. Unbeknownst to Charlie, her sessions with the therapist have been carefully monitored by psychologists and scientists who have plans of their own in using her – and who are quite prepared to throw her therapist off the program if she objects. In her first session in the long-term program, Charlie realises too late that she is being stalked by strangers who have entered her Virtual Reality world and who threaten her psychological stability.

The film plays like a pilot to a full-length film or television series which might explain its sketchy and incomplete nature. However the vague nature of the plot does invite many intriguing explanations of what is happening throughout the film. Is the rape itself a scene in a different Virtual Reality world? What exactly is the role of Deja, Charlie’s friend, in “Lucid”? One might think Charlie would not be too keen on seeing Deja again after her rape experience as Deja was the one who took Charlie to the club where Charlie met the rapist. How and why does Charlie choose Virtual Reality neurological therapy to cope and deal with her trauma? Was the rapist ever arrested, charged with rape and put away in prison?

The acting is adequate for the film and perhaps Monahan is best advised not to try to direct and be the main character at the same time so that her energies and efforts are not spread thinly. However the film’s emphasis is on plot and the themes and issues surrounding the use of Virtual Reality in ordinary life, and how it could lead people into escapist cyber-addiction and encourage an inability to acknowledge and accept that life is often unfair and hard lessons must be learned to gain maturity and self-knowledge.

The film looks very good and plays smoothly, and serves as an introduction to the wider issue of how technology is allowed to invade and shape human psychology and culture.