So at long last, my science fiction journey comes to an end. Three days of suspense, drama, robots and time-travel and I have fallen even more in love with an already adored genre. With this conclusion of the first annual Other Worlds Austin Sci-Fi Film Festival, all I can do is sit back, take a sip from my ice-cold Dr. Pepper and applaud founder Bears Fonté and team on a spectacular effort in expanding my imagination and securing my newest yearly tradition.
While I owe a supreme appreciation to the programmers and volunteers of the festival, I owe a greater thanks to the dedicated filmmakers who devoted countless hours crafting the beloved shorts and feature films that me and fellow patrons thoroughly devoured, screening after screening. The passion and creativity that went into some of these works – ranging from a few minutes to a few hours – truly highlights the strength of the genre and the impact that imaginative storytelling can have in this most desperate of times for a cinema that is otherwise generally filled with schlock and remakes.
In a word, the festival as a whole was refreshing. It was refreshing to be surrounded by passionate fans that you could strike up a conversation with about your favorite submissions. It was refreshing to watch original and quality material made with 10% more love than the next leading brand. It was refreshing to know that while some of the submissions weren’t quite the technical achievements of something like Interstellar (though many were), whether they were the best of the festival or the worst of the festival, they all packed some serious heart and charm that are testaments to their respective writers and directors.
In summary, thank you Other Worlds Austin for an incredibly enjoyable weekend and I thoroughly am looking forward to next year’s festival. Though I want more robot movies =3 MAKE IT HAPPEN BEARS!
So onwards and upwards to the films! I feel slightly guilty because I had to miss the first two screenings of a possible 4 film finale: Aura and The Sun Devil and the Princess, Backyard Blockbusters (which I really wanted to see), Perfect 46, and Capsule, but that’s the cost of having a real job I suppose. Based on my conversation with some other audience members, I apparently didn’t miss anything earth-shattering, but I still feel the slightest bit guilty.
Regardless, I did manage to make it in time for the third segment of shorts entitled ‘On to Tomorrow’ and the 2 features The Reconstruction of William Zero and The Phoenix Project (which I saw instead of Apt 3D). As a whole I’d say this third day was probably the weakest of the three segments, but that’s not really a negative since pretty much everything up until this point has been phenomenal. I think that mainly has to do with the theme of this segment as it was basically just dramas with a sci-fi flair.
You won’t find a whole lot of space-ships or non-stop action sequences, but instead you’ll get a very limited set that is built around character development and human interaction. Minimalist sci-fi is my buzz phrase to descrive it. Both The Reconstruction of William Zero and The Phoenix project are more involved with the story’s impact on the characters rather than the story itself. On one end you have an existentialist clone story with William Zero and on the other end you have a modern day Frankenstein–esque story that basically has nothing to do with the monster but everything to do with the motivations and obsessions associated with playing god.
The Reconstruction of William Zero (US Premiere)
The Reconstruction of William Zero was marked as the closing night film and probably for good reason. It’s not flashy, it’s not overtly a big sci-fi masterpiece in the traditional sense, but to me it stands as an embodiment of the width and depth that the genre is able to fill.
The plot centers around a man with no identity of his own that has been in a coma for some time. He is rehabilitated back into his life by his supposed twin brother until the man learns the truth about his existence. He is William Blakely: the clone of a man who accidentally killed his son, a leading geneticist that works for a cloning facility, and has been living in isolation after having been separated from his wife for the past 4 years.
William Zero must navigate through the perils of realities and implanted memories to unravel his place in world and deal with the side effects of being a clone. Can he trust the man he is cloned from? Can he win back the woman he has been implanted to love even though he himself was not the one to kill their child?
If you’ve seen one clone movie, you’ve seen them all right? Well…sort of. This film instantly called to mind images of Sam Rockwell in Moon or the uncertainty faced by the protagonist in Memento, but William Zero is still able to stand on its own as another superb entry into the genre. You’ve got your classic tale of a man with no memories of his own that has to unravel his own existence only to have the shocking twist that he is anything but normal.
It’s the reveal in Dark City when Murdoch can seemingly make things happen by willpower alone. It’s the conflict between reality and imagination you’d get in something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. William Zero is your everyman that just happens to have been born in a test-tube. He craves meaning, he craves identity, and he craves answers to questions that keep unraveling in his hands.
I thought this film was fairly well written, though there were segments that left me a little uninterested. It probably could have done without the very last scene, but it’s not something that will spoil an otherwise entertaining movie. It felt authentic, it felt emotional, and overall I’d say this movie felt like a movie about clones should. It’s frightening to think how dealing with your own doppelgänger might be in real life, though I for one am more than likely just shoot first and ask questions later. This world isn’t big enough for two Airman Xleys. That’ll teach that original copy!
The Bottom Line:
Decent Performances, a genuinely emotional storyline and a few twists that should keep you engaged throughout the film. It’s not Moon, but it’s definitely still worth your time. What if you could build a better version of yourself?
The Phoenix Project (Texas Premiere)
Now here is the diamond in the rough that I was waiting for in this festival. A slow, dull movie where the characters are more concerned with just standing around talking about things rather than having big action sequences. No I’m being completely serious, I love my sci-fi long and drawn out with a haunting indie score. Just look at Solaris or Stalker. The Phoenix Project is a modern day homage to Frankenstein and one that would make Mary Shelley proud. It’s exactly what I needed to close out my third night at the Galaxy and one that will leave you feeling a little hollow but completely encapsulated by its bleakness.
When four scientists move into a home to begin a project of raising the dead via their ingenious machine, tensions flare as the project becomes more about personal ambitions, career obsessions and underlying motivations rather than simply breathing new life into a dead mouse. Directed by Tyler Pavey, this film as previously mentioned isn’t flashy. You’ll get no scenes akin to Dr. Frankenstein screaming ‘IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE! MY GOD IT’S ALIVEEEEEEEEEE!’. You’ll get no monster terrorizing the countryside.You’ll get four dudes doing science in a garage and you’ll like it consarnit!
This movie is concerned with the relationships between the scientists as they deal with the frustrations of scientific advancement, the tensions associated with limited grant money and getting their tests exactly right, and most importantly the flair of temperaments from living in such close proximity to each other throughout the project. I believe the alternative title is something like ‘Technology with unexpected consequences’ and that’s basically the best way to summarize the film. It’s a film that questions morality in scientific advancement and reveals the unintended ramifications of trying to blaze new trails.
Brilliantly acted, the four main characters show extreme levels of chemistry on screen as the story waxes and wanes through collusion, comradery, and eventually collapse. The story is character development at its finest as we see a spectrum of emotions from all four scientists as they each have to confront their personal demons and are pushed to the brink in order to achieve immortality both in terms of their scientific contributions and more literally with the success of their reanimation project.
If you like minimalist science fiction you’ll love this film. If you adored the story of Frankenstein for reasons other than the monster you’ll love this film. It’s a character driven plot with masterful levels of human drama and it all takes place in a 2,500 sqft home. The one thing I will say about the majority of the films in this festival is that there seem to be very clear points where the director probably should have ended the film just prior to when they actually did. In the Phoenix Project this couldn’t be further from the truth. I encourage you to watch the credits in their entirety and just let that level of creepiness sink in if you still wish it were more like Frankenstein.
The Bottom Line:
A minimalist retelling of a classic monster story, only in this case it’s in a garage in suburbia and the monster is ambition. A must-see if you’re at all familiar with the cold-realities of scientific discovery or if you’re looking for a good old-fashioned human drama. IT’S ALIVE!
Vimana – Faroukh Virani – USA/India
Two crewmembers are forced to deliberate on how to proceed with their interstellar mission when their captain succumbs to side-effects from the journey. Overall I’d probably give this one a ‘meh’ rating. It wasn’t bad but didn’t really do anything to pique my interest. It looks nice and is well acted, but probably isn’t what I would have wanted to start off the day. Just fire him out of the airlock for Christ’s sake…
LiFi – Preston Peterson/Jason Boesch – USA
THIS is how I wanted to start the day. When three scientists working out of their garage invent a machine that not only teleports but restores organics lifeforms to their original factory state, they must come to grips with what their invention means for humanity and the morality of playing god. This was an excellent pregame buildup for the later screening of The Phoenix Project and one I would definitely recommend to everyone that loves technology sci-fi. Great acting, great production values and just another quality short for the festival.
Jupiter’s Glare – Rebecca Gower – UK
There are too many women on the planet! So much so that a gender identification program actually incentivizes choosing your gender to be a male rather than female just to restore a population balance. Again, this one didn’t really do much for me and wasn’t memorable enough to remember what it was about leaving the theater. It seemed a bit pretentious and wasn’t really my cup of tea. Ha! Get it!? Cup of tea and it’s a short from the UK! Damn I’m funny.
The Last Wildflower – Jonathan Hal Reynolds – Texas
Speaking of pretention, this was easily the most pretentious work in the entire film festival. Its story is centered around a pilgrim that crash-lands on Earth searching for a habitable home to live. It tries to get all zen and then tie into biblical origins and it just left me feeling annoyed and wanting more robots. There wasn’t a single goddamn robot in any of these shorts!
Odessa – Cidney Hue – USA
This one was actually really fun and probably what I would consider the centerpiece for the third day. When Astronaut Shannon enjoys one last night on earth before her 140 journey in cryo-sleep to a distant planet, she finds leaving Earth just isn’t as easy as she initially thought. I absolutely loved this short simply because its inherently sci-fi without actually having anything more than references and a split second scene towards the end. It’s pretty neat how the director humanizes the City of New York and works a little technical magic to make this 15 minute short really stand out among so many other great little films.
New – John Harden – USA
New is the story of an elderly couple that have been restored to their youth after a few centuries in cryogenics. It’s your classic fish-out-of-water type story only more man-out-of-time. Its decent and makes all examine the concept of nostalgia, but ultimately this wasn’t anything spectacular to write home about.
7300 Days Later – Luca Bertoluzzi – UK
When five childhood friends meet twenty years later at the playground they used to play on as kids, they soon must examine the innocence of their own childhood’s when they are confronted by an other-worldly dilemma. This film absolutely caught me off guard because I had no idea where the short was heading. With a mix of archival type playground footage spliced in with modern day drama, 7300 days later definitely was a poignant tale of the innocence of youth and a child’s passion for science fiction that never quite goes away
Recoil – Evan Matthews – USA
Recoil is the story of a space captain that must brave time and space itself to save his estranged brother who is trapped in a time loop at the edge of a black hole. This is great example that illustrates how a director and make a really high production value short rather than a subpar feature film. It looks phenomenal, the story is clever though more science fantasy than anything and it has that gritty sci-fi western feel that Firefly did. I’m all about retro-futurism and this little gem certainly shined as the last short I saw in the festival.
So day three winners for the short segments? It’s pretty tough because as a whole they weren’t as great as the Dystopian Visions or the Passage to the Unknown segments. LiFi stood out to me as the forerunner, but it lacked the charm that came with watching Astronaut Shannon in Odessa. Recoil obviously was the best looking, and is in close competition to the two before-mentioned shorts, but I’m awarding the day three trophy to…7300 Days Later.
It was a Never-landian tale of childhood innocence about a love for science fiction and one that I feel is symbolic for the festival as a whole. Its something about the genre that keeps drawing in generation after generation to far out space stories and more familiar tales of technology induced drama. It’s the fear or curiosity of the unknown that draws us across time and space in our beloved stories and in the existentialist conflicts we’re presented with when dealing with robots, aliens, or even clones.
Science fiction asks the questions we’re all too afraid to identify and it does it with a certain grace that forces the issues through symbolic manifestations of our imagination. We’re all children at heart when it comes to watching our favorite sci-fi films and TV shows, and its this otherworldly nostalgia that makes grown men giddy when they see a Star Wars Teaser or turn into fangirls when Patrick Stewart passes us on the street.
So in a final summary of the festival, all I can say is that I will do my part to spread the word about the 2nd Annual Other Worlds Austin as it definitely is an event that I am already marking my calendar for next year. I extend my personal thanks to the OWA programming team and volunteers as well as all of the strangers-turned-friends from the audience that made the festival truly something out of this world. There may be a lull in quality films coming out over the next few months, but thanks to OWA I can hibernate through the winter months with a belly full of sci-fi and a head filled with a rekindled imagination.
And just for good measure here are my top 3 personal favorites for features and shorts in case you are hungry yourself for some quality material.