Monday, May 02, 2011

Dangling on a Shoestring

So, I'm a film festival screener again this year, and the second film I watched has put me of a mind to NEVER forgive crap filmmaking because the budget is microscopic again. That sucker was made for next to nothing and it friggin' rocked. I mean, sure, it was a short, but it packed more creativity into eight minutes of running time than some features pack into two hours, calling to mind Ambrose Bierce's assertion that a novel is "a short story, padded." Well, to my mind, anyway. If this is the average quality of submissions, this is going to be a rough season to choose, but a pure delight to watch.

Oh, yeah, this means that my posting might suffer a bit over the next few months. Nothing to be done for it. Last year, I watched something like eighty films for the festival. This year, it looks like I'm going to hit at least a hundred. I love the gig--LOVE it!--But it makes me want to explode sometimes when I can't say "This film kicks all kinds of ass! You should run out and find a copy immediately!" I sign a confidentiality agreement for my screening duty, so I can't even tell you where to see these films until the selections have all been made.

The kinds of films possible on a microbudget have been in a tremendous amount of flux over the last 25 years or so. The level of film craft--for making costumes and props, anyway--among various fandoms has become almost indistinguishable from the professionals. Hell, sometimes it's even more imaginative. This is doubly true of special effects, where the computer revolution has made effects that were once state-of-the-art available to anyone with right software suite and a reasonably powerful home computer. Production values as a moving target are on display in the curious case of Outerworld (1987, directed by Philip Cook), which was originally completed and released direct to video in the 1980s. A decade later, the director went in and updated the film with then-current technologies. It's an interesting hodgepodge of effects. The newer footage is a stark contrast to the low grade picture of the original film. Even that original showed a great deal of imagination and moxie in its design and execution. Cook utilized an early version of the contemporary virtual set--he worked with miniatures rather than computer-generated 3-D environments, but the effect is the same--placing his actors into his miniatures through the clever use of blue screens (blue screens not yet having been replaced with green screens). There's also a slight disconnect caused by the contrast of mid-80s era fashions and set-design sensibilities with late-90s effects. As I say, it's a hodgepodge.

The end product isn't bad, exactly, but it's an ungainly, shambolic thing. Like many semi-pro sci-fi films, it wears its influences on its sleeves. The story follows Pentan, a genetically engineered corporate espionage agent and assassin as she is assigned to find a newly discovered alien ship. A previous alien find revolutionized human technology and the Kuriyama Corporations, the outfit that created her, stands to make trillions from exclusive rights to another. Pentan, however, has other ideas. She's had it with being a slave and defects to her own side. The problem with this is that as a synthetic human (the word "replicant" must have been on everyone's lips in the story meetings), she has no rights. Worse, there is the device in her head designed to kill her if she ever went rogue, a device that has been activated. She finds down at the heels pilot to take her off world, with the agents of Kuriyama nipping at her heels.

For all the creativity the filmmakers exercised in getting this on screen in the first place, one wishes that the story itself were better. It's banged together from the toys sci-fi movies have been leaving around the playroom for decades. There's a hint that the filmmakers have some literary grounding--Pentan reminds me simultaneously of Robert Heinlein's Friday and William Gibson's Molly Million, which is surely not an accident--but there's NOT any hint that they have any literary ambition of their own. They haven't extrapolated from their influences or made any effort to make them uniquely their own. Instead, they're echoes that do the film no favors in comparison. The film is more interesting as an artifact than as art. I think the audience that would get the most out of it is one that is keen on making low-budget movies themselves. Others need not apply.


SaganAndroid said...

So what movie were you talking about in above the fold? It sounds like you liked it. Contrasted to what came after the fold.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Unfortunately, I can't say. I sign an NDA to be a screener. It was a 25 minute short that I don't think has made it into release anyway. And yeah. I did like it.