Out there down here: Sci-Fi-London 2013

Six of the best in this year’s genre showcase got to grips with distinctly grounded human concerns, reports Anton Bitel.

Anton Bitel
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Byzantium

Byzantium

For those alien to the genre scene, it can be all too tempting to dismiss the titles that make up the programme of the erstwhile Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, with their extra-terrestrials, undead, superheroes, neural transfer, time and space travel. Yet through the resonant backdoor of metaphor and allegory, even the most out-there SF and fantasy can find ways of importing more grounded materials into their frame, while adding the pleasures of genre itself.

Indeed it was often possible to discern the themes and even narrative outlines of other, decidedly more ‘arthouse’ titles. Abstract the undead mythology from Neil Jordan’s festival opener Byzantium, and its story of two women fleeing abusive and dangerous men to the south coast of England bore a remarkable resemblance to Paul Andrew Williams’ London to Brighton.

What the vampiric frame added was a suggestion, from the perspective of the film’s centuries-old mother-daughter team (who, in the present day, enterprisingly convert the dipapidated guesthouse of the title into a brothel), of a long history of male abuse of women, stretching right back to the actual ancient Byzantium from which one of their misogynistic pursuers originates. Patriarchy itself dies as hard as the old boys’ network perpetuated by these male blood-suckers, it would seem.

Meanwhile the film’s not entirely reliable narrative is itself suitably Byzantine, stitched together from a series of tales passed down as bedtime stories by a mendacious mother (Gemma Arterton) to her imaginative, impressionable daughter (Saoirse Ronan). A horrific subtext of child prostitution, pre-teen pregnancy and paedophile rings is carefully buried in more palatable fantasy.

Vessel

Vessel

Similarly, in Adam Ciancio’s Vessel, here in its world premiere, the story of a young man blessed (or cursed) with the gift of communicating with extraterrestrials at the expense of his own sense of identity offers an entry on alienation, addiction and mental illness. As protagonist Ash (Mark Diaco) shuffles between health professionals, old flames and ex-junky friends, it was hard not to think of Le Feu Follet or Oslo, August 31st. That said, mumbling, mopey Ash makes for a singularly unengaging protagonist, so that the film feels as though it were stretching time as much as space – even if its use of interstitial urban locations (car parks, alleyways, buildings under construction) is both striking and well-suited to a study of a man falling between the cracks.

Piercing Brightness

Piercing Brightness

Shorter (in both perceived and actual time) and altogether weirder and wittier, multimedia artist Shezad Dawood’s feature debut Piercing Brightness also earns its genre credentials through extraterrestrial themes. But in reimagining Preston as a haven for space visitors with integration issues, it manages to say as much about immigration and assimilation as any more grounded exodus drama, while also serving as a psychedelic city symphony that shows the sights of Lancashire’s County Town through thoroughly alien eyes. The different film stocks, colour filters and jump-cuts of chronology all add to this defamiliarising effect, although everything is brought back down to earth by some slyly banal humour.

Dead Weight

Dead Weight

In Dead Weight, a US-wide outbreak transforms those infected into flesh-eating killers, driving slacker Charlie (impressive newcomer Joe Belknap) to get off his couch in Toledo, Ohio and trek on foot to Wausau, Wisconsin, where he has promised to meet his girlfriend Samantha (Mary Lindberg).

So far, so familiar zombie survival thriller – but first-time feature-makers Adam Bartlett and John Pata keep their infected almost entirely off-screen, preferring more human monsters. The film’s focus becomes Charlie’s difficult dynamic with his fellow travellers and the other uninfected people he encounters along the way, as well as his troubled relationship with Samantha (shown in reverse-order flashbacks). The film ends up in dark territories previously occupied not just by other post-apocalyptic fare, but also by Blue Valentine and even Simon Killer. The world may be falling apart, but what we witness is one would-be lover’s moral breakdown, which resonates far more deeply than the ambient genre mayhem wisely relegated to the background.

The Human Race

The Human Race

In The Human Race, a random selection of 80 people of different ages, abilities and ethnicities who happen to be on one American street block one sunny afternoon find themselves suddenly transported to a large, drab-looking arena, where they hear (their own) voices in their heads instructing them to race one another or die. This gladiatorial set-up might recall The Running Man or Battle Royale, with just a hint of Predators, but this visceral feature debut from writer/director Paul Hough is better than all of these thanks to its solid focus on characterisation and moral choice, as well as on broader theological/cosmological questions about our place in the universe. It’s not as sociopolitically rooted as, say, Punishment Park, but remains a bleak and often bloody portrait of humanity as a plaything for drives and forces beyond its comprehension or control.

My favourite film of the festival (and one of the year!) however was Martin Villeneuve’s Mars et Avril, an oneiric ‘space opera’ of a kind that, had he had access to CGI, no doubt Cocteau would have made. (He’s duly name-checked in Villeneuve’s script).

So much in this film is vibrantly original and odd. How many future-set films exist that are in no way dystopian, that feature not a single moment of violence, and that have a 75-year-old virgin musician as their hero?

Mars et Avril

Mars et Avril

This last is Jacob Obus (Jacques Languirand), whose unique instruments are all designed by his younger friend Arthur Spaak (Paul Ahmarani) in imitation of the female form (like a more benign if no less surreal variation of the “mutant tools for mutant women” in fellow Canadian David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers). A photographer named Avril (Caroline Dhavernas) agrees to model for one of their instruments if in turn they will each model for her own art, “focusing”, as she says, “on important themes: life, death, time, space, nothingness.” In the love triangle that ensues, all these themes – and eros too – will play out in a wondrous, melancholic dance that echoes and retunes the harmony of the universe as theorised by Arthur’s father, the “experimental cosmologist”, inventor and hologram Eugène (Robert Lepage).

With its robot bartenders, dream machines, teleportation devices, missions to Mars and sleek steampunk sets, Villeneuve’s astonishing debut has all the furnishings of science fiction, yet in breaking down the barriers between science, art, philosophy and religion it becomes something much more than a mere genre piece. It’s a meta-cosmo-poem with musical accompaniment, photographic imagery and much male longing and loneliness – which makes it a pioneering exploration of the outer limits not just of Canadian filmmaking in particular (which has never before produced something so grandly rich and strange) and cinema in general, but also of the SF and fantasy genres themselves, here made to accommodate the broadest of human concerns.

And in the June 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

Between the lines

After his successful sojourn in television with The Borgias, Neil Jordan explains how he was drawn back to film by Byzantium, a contemporary vampire story that revisits some of the director’s characteristic themes and breathes new life into an overexposed genre. By Trevor Johnston.

Deadly is the female

Byzantium sucks nourishment from a bloodline of female movie vampires. By Kim Newman.

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