a zoo in hell


Space Suits

Independent Film as a descriptive term hasn’t really meant anything for at least ten years now. I know what I mean when I say independent film, but it seldom means the same thing when I see it on big media or in the newspaper. I know the idea of independence is relative to where you are in the filmmaking cosmos, but on the other hand, using the term often feels a lot like calling a drink filled with sugar and caffeine a “sports drink”. You can call it whatever you want, but the effect doesn’t really live up to the branding.

So, it’s a rare and special day when I see a film that really makes me feel the buzz I felt in the good old days. Maybe it’s oldster, but I think I have a sense of when a film has got the gusto of “independent spirit” and not just the paperwork. Moon, directed by Duncan Jones, has brought back that lovin’ feeling. While Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell) has got plenty of experience, he is not a known A-lister, and while Kevin Spacey adds his talents as the voice of GERTY, his star power does not overpower this little film with glitz.

I can’t honestly understand how this film got made in the first place. It’s got nothing going which would green light it by conventional wisdom. Mostly one location, a very small cast, little action, and the need for sets and special effects would put this in the “reject” box for most producers. Yet, it got made, and it got made right and in a compelling way. Sam Rockwell gives a great performance as he manages very different aspects of the same character and keeps daily life on the Moon station interesting.

There is plenty of homage, but while these are obvious, what most interests me is how the film turned from the paths of well-known predecessors. Sure, GERTY is reminiscent of HAL 9000, but he is also much more practical than HAL, capable of doing much more manual labor than HAL was. GERTY has more depth of personality as well, and
while HAL complicated the question of the evolution of    
                                                                      intelligence, GERTY complicates the question of what it means to be a creation of man. They are both computers in space, but that is where many of the similarities end.

I believe the film’s greatest strength is its ability to bring forth the big, huge themes that have defined the giants of thoughtful cinematic science fiction, and still be done on a very modest scale. While other stars who have done much with (again, relatively) little have gone on to larger and larger budgets, it is a joy to discover filmmakers who are keeping the real spirit of independent film alive and well. (Of course, it is only natural that they would do so with a “genre” film.)

Pandorum, directed by relative newcomer Christian Alvart, is cause for less excitement. Produced by the German company  Constantin Prods, a company whose track record is littered with as many genre hits as misses, the film doesn’t completely rid itself of the “SyFy” curse which lingers over many European productions. Visually, the film is stunning and enthralling, and outshines many science fiction films in its class with its attention to light and image. Dennis Quaid offers the most star-power and he puts in a performance that makes much of a limited script.

The script is by far the weak link in this film. By this, I mean the dialogue is often cringe-worthy. I am thinking that this is a cross-cultural problem, because so much of the story seems intelligent enough, but every time lead Ben Foster (Bower) says something, it sounds off and like a bad job of dubbing. Could this be a problem of character? Maybe the lead is a humorless military type, wouldn’t be unreasonable, but this same tone deaf dialogue is uttered from the required sexy survivorette, and the not-unexpected cannibal chef. Remember that feeling whenever a Transformer spoke in the Micheal Bay film? This is just like that.

So, like Moon, there is a lot of homage working in this film too. There’s a dash of Alien, a spot of Event Horizon, a little bit of Doomsday, some Solaris, and others great and small. Of course, it is the nature of genre that there is a certain “formula” and these elements are combined in a way that kept Pandorum interesting as its own film and not an empty exercise. The brilliance in this film, though centainly not the dialogue, is the way it draws out and then twists audience assumptions. Which is smart, because the people watching this film are more often than not going to be versed in all of the films it was inspired by.

Finally, our little trip in space brings us to Eden Log. This French film, directed by first-time feature director Franck Vestiel, and produced by newcomers Imperia Films, is in many ways exactly what neither of the above films were. Unfortunately, the “SyFy” haze hangs heavy over this film. The dialogue is even more tone deaf than in Pandorum, and the EXISTENTIAL and SERIOUS concerns of Eden Log make this feel even more hackneyed.

The film spends the first twenty or so minutes with Clovis Cornillac (Tobiac) slowly crawling out of some dark pit littered with evidence of a fallen world. This leisurely, borderline experimental, approach carries through much of the film. Stagey and slow, the mis-en-scene used the thetrical sets of The Cabinet of Caligari or Eraserhead as inspiration but created something closer to real B-movie productions.

Most of the production design, while not bad, was too obviously put together by a trip to the French equivalent of Ax-Man Surplus. Better lighting may have helped, but instead, the film again opted for a stark, high-contrast, lighting scheme which only enhances the feeling of over-importance. Every element of this film, with the exception of the execution, screams “we are serious and thoughtful science fiction”. A soundtrack could’ve help set a different tone, but nope, we are treated to mostly silence as the backdrop for the ponderous dialogue.

To be fair to both Pandorum and Eden Log, I have to say I watched both film in English, and I don’t even know if there was a subtitle option. Perhaps I would’ve had a much better experience watching the film as I would any other overseas production, and not have had to listen to the artless delivery of an English script.

For a long, long time, the most interesting work in science fiction filmmaking has been happening outside the borders of the United States. While there is nothing “international” about Moon (white males in space), it is interesting to me that one of the more intelligent science fiction films to be released in the last few years actually had an American theatrical run and is available for rental in most mainstream outlets. With Sundance taking a turn back to its scrappy roots, perhaps we can cautiously hope that independent film as a whole will re-emerge, like small mammals scampering among the bones of dinosaurs, or more appropriately, as the older and wiser Sam Bell; willing to learn the limits and gifts of its own peculiar condition.