Words cannot describe how much fun I am having right now dear reader, as I wrap up day 1 of the first annual Other Worlds Austin Science Fiction Film Festival. Bears Fonté, the founder, and crew have already captured my imagination and stand ready to enrich my life through a vast spectrum of science fiction shorts and full length feature films over the next 3 days. The level of creativity and diversity of the festival’s programming continues to astound me as does the interaction with my fellow fans.
While the inaugural festival is confined to the bleakness that is the Galaxy Highland theater, the festival attracted a strong audience that currently fills the two dedicated screens – Alpha and Beta. While I was spared the arduous task of having to decide between feature films on opening night, the following two days will surely test my decision-making skills as several of the festival’s films are premiering at the same time. The seats may be a little wonky and the screen in dire need of replacement, but you won’t find an uninterested soul in the house.
Truly the most inspiring thing about the first of hopefully many Sci-Fi film festivals in Austin, is not only am I seeing a complete spectrum of glorious science fiction, but their is such energy and comradery among the audience that I have already made several festival friends with otherwise complete strangers. It’s not quite on the extremes of say…going to Comic Con, but I find myself surrounded by seasoned genre fans, trekkies (or trekkers depending on your affiliation) , and casual movie-goers alike. What could possibly unite all of these demographics into braving the gloomy weather and a trip to a ‘reglear’ theatre? Why, simply the dedicated passion to celebrate all aspects of a truly magical genre such as science fiction.
Sci-fi is powerful for a lot of reasons, but in this writer’s opinion, it’s the perfect medium to force upon people the topics they otherwise wouldn’t talk about. Already in the 4 hours or so of opening night, the films have examined everything from greed, resource scarcity, cannibalism, and mortality to more personal human drama. Film directors seemingly have no restraints within the genre and take the audience to the far reaches of space, the unknown, or even to places familiar like a home or workplace. The power to convey messages and emotions through sci-fi metaphors and locales is to me what defines science fiction as the mightiest of genres and is testament to why I’ve spent so many countless hours ‘wasting’ my life indoors watching my favorite shows and movies.
The formatting of the festival itself is a blend of themed segments of short films simply entitled ‘Dystopian Visions’, ‘Passage to the Unknown’, and ‘On to Tomorrow’ as well as a series of full length features that cover nearly every subgenre of sci-fi. They have your time-travel needs covered; your space-travel flicks, aliens, the supernatural, post-apocalyptic, dystopian (my personal favorite) as well as some more light-hearted romps and teary-eyed dramas.I’m not entirely sure of the selection process, but I have faith the passion for for the genre is universal and that the OWA2014 crew without a doubt have put the greatest of care into their selections.
I know I’ve said this before, but I feel in necessary to say it again in lieu of this being the first film festival I’ve attended under the Zeppelin banner. I very clearly have no background in journalism or classical film critique. There are no English degrees or formal training under my belt. I’m just a guy that enjoys all things cinema and specifically the realm of the imagination that encompasses science fiction and fantasy. Whether you’ve seen a handful of films or you’ve enjoyed a lifetime in the cinema, movies transcend generation after generation because they’re vehicles for emotions. You and I can watch the same movie, at the same time, with the same conditions and still arrive at very different things that we take away from the film. Since the audience after each film or series of shorts gets to cast their vote for the soon-to-be prestigious festival awards, so too shall I highlight my personal favorites as well as offer up my personal commentary on each of the festival’s exceptional entries.
Day 1 Programming
Feature: The Well
For the opening night, we find ourselves confined to the realm of post-apocalyptic/dystopian futures. The feature film is simply entitled ‘The Well’ and is directed by Tom Hammock. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic Oregon where we are informed that ‘the rains’ have simply stopped some ten years ago (from the not too distant future) and the last remnants of a once fertile valley struggle to survive as their most precious resource, water, systematically becomes more and more scarce.
Teen Kendal is one of such survivors that hides out in an abandoned farmhouse with a character whose name I forget. Meanwhile we learn that there is villainous figure surrounded by his many zealots that scour the valley, hunting for survivors who he claims are using his water without his permission (as he has claimed the remaining water in the valley and thus the land). As one of these few remaining holdout survivors, Kendal scrounges for water and supplies why searching fruitlessly for a distributer cap to aide in the repairs of an old airplane (that her group dreams of escaping in).
Overall I felt like this was a fairly decent opening film that will no doubt set the stage for the coming days of the festival. The film itself started off fairly slow though it kept my attention with an intriguing plot and a fairly convincing performance by Haley Lu Richardson. She grows to be a badass through the film battling her foes with her trusty shotgun and eventually a katana. It isn’t outrageous or over the top like you’d see in a Tarantino or Rodriguez style film but it still has that ‘this is still a low budget sci-fi’ charm to it. She gives a decent performance that is not only genuine, but also just felt right for this type of survival flick.
The cinematography is superb and gritty at the same time and really lends itself to feeling the sparseness of the wasteland. Other than Kendall and maybe the villain played by Jon Gries, the characters and their development aren’t too memorable, but it isn’t glaringly sub-par. It’s a solid little movie with some fairly decent suspense and action sequences as well as the much needed creepy-factor from both the landscape and the gas-mask wearing henchman (because gasmasks are always scary, but more on that later). Are you my mummy?
At any rate, I enjoyed The Well for what it was and what it was not. It’s clearly not a big budget film, but yet it still manages to capture the magic and intrigue of films like The Hills have Eyes, Mad Max, The Road, as well as a host of other post-apocalyptic films. Like I said – the dialogue isn’t all that great and some of the supporting characters are occasionally painful in their deliveries and screen presence, but overall it was still a fun little movie to watch.
If you’re like me, you’ll probably get annoyed by some of the hiccups in the ‘attention to detail’ category as well as the fact that in a completely barren wasteland, the main character has inexplicably fantastic hiding skills. Seriously, she just runs across the desert and no one spots her or thinks to check behind the door-frame when she’s hiding out in a house. Don’t let that stop you as it’s definitely still more entertaining that a lot of the regular schlock that hits mainstream cinema.
The Bottom Line:
It’s really not a stretch to imagine East Oregon as wasteland filled with fanatical highwaymen and desperate survivors, but The Well at least is able to indulge a bit in this arena. Warning: This film will definitely make you thirsty if you opt to not drown yourself with that large concession stand soda.
For the conclusion of the first night, the audience was treated to the first of three segments of short films that explored the realm of ‘Dystopian Visions’. Ranging from 2 minutes to 20 minutes, I never once found myself yawning due to the late hours, but rather felt invigorated with each passing film. It was pretty neat to have a few of the filmmakers present for a Q&A session at the conclusion of the shorts and you’d be proud dear reader to know that I concurred (at least temporarily) my fear of public speaking to ask a question. Thank god I was wearing a jacket and no one could see me sweating profusely.
Gasmask – Pablo Bonelli – USA
A survivor of a infected wasteland stumbles upon a house inhabited by family that has sinister intentions and he must use all of his cunning to survive. This was easily one of my favorites simply because it looked beautiful, albeit creepy with the main character donning a gasmask most of the time, and it held its suspense and tension throughout the 20 minutes. A definite must see in my opinion and a wonderful addition to the genre of post-apocalyptic survival films. The level of performance and the sparseness of the filming locations pair nicely with the horror-esque score to really make the hairs on your arms stand on end.
The Developer – Robert Odegnal – Hungary
This was a highly stylized little film where the protagonist has the ability to get strung-out and hallucinate visions of the past that have imprinted themselves on objects, rooms, etc. The visions are then transcribed on a bandage on the back of his neck. This film was really enjoyable to watch simply because of the visuals and the cool trance-like state that was reminiscent of something along the lines of if Frank Miller’s style of animation had a baby with an old silent film. It looks great, is masterfully written, and could easily be made into a full length feature with a little tweaking.
Strangers – Justin Nickels – USA
This one felt a little bit forced though it was definitely still mildly entertaining. Basically two brothers have to confront the past differences while encountering other-worldly activity in the outskirts of their city. The acting and production values aren’t all that great, but if you like abduction films then this is definitely worth 14 minutes of your life. Probably in the lowest percentile of this first round of shorts though.
Malaise – Daniel Beaulieu – USA
Despite only lasting about 2 minutes, Malaise manages to carry the same intensity as Ripley’s final struggle in Alien as a sole survivor of a doomed ship must attempt to reach the escape pods. A fun little animated short that still manages to pack a suspenseful punch. KERPOW!
Emit – JS Mayank – USA
Time runs backwards in this world as we enter a place where deaths are celebrated and births lamented. One elderly man and his family welcome his dead wife coming back to life as the granddaughter ponders her eventual death by pre-birth. Overall it was fairly engaging in that ‘oh that’s kind of interesting’ description of sci-fi. Ok, not bad, but not great. It’s probably a B –
Slumptown (or the Inexorable March of Orogress)– Bryan Costanich – USA
I actually coined the perfect phrase to describe this film in the Q&A – Kubrick in a Coffee Shop. Yes, it’s exactly what you first thought of. Dave is a coffee shop barista that has to train his eventual replacement Al the robot in the everyday handling of the coffee house. I can’t let you make that cappuccino, Dave. Great performances, great use of a confined set; honestly my only complaint would be it wasn’t longer. I’ll conclude with a summary of the three day festivals and all of its contributions, but I am already reserving a spot for this hidden gem. Well done for a homage to 2001 that hits close to home.
Gear – Joe Ksander, Kevin Adams – USA
A girl has to escape her captures with the help of an old service robot in the streets of her city. For being only 8 minutes this short seemed to capture the rest of the audience’s attention simply because it had a near perfect balance of stylization and action/suspense. It’s tough in all of these films to build an engaging story in such a short time and maintain the crucial elements that make it sci-fi, but this wastes no time in thrusting the audience into a desperate gamble. It’s hyper-stylized and doesn’t give you any option but to be entranced at one 12 year old girls struggle in the dystopian future.
Sleepworking – Gavin Williams – UK
This was definitely another of my favorites as its much more of a psychological thriller-style sci-fi rather than a sleek, action-packed short. The premise is that – in the future – individuals can volunteer their bodies to be programmed for work while they sleep in order to earn extra money and contribute to society. It’s a film that challenges the perception of what is and isn’t reality as our main protagonist struggles to find out what she’s really doing while sleep-working after a series of disturbing dreams. I love minimalist sci-fi films and this one definitely gets my stamp of approval. I’d lose a little faith in humanity if they didn’t at least consider turning some of these into features.
And that about summarizes the first series of shorts…Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of all the films but was still easily able to identify my favorites and not-so favorites . If I were going to recommend the best three, they would definitely be Slumptown, Sleepworking and Gasmask as those were the ones that stuck out the most to me. Gasmask was creepy and stark, Sleepworking was thrilling yet unflinching in its commentary on the times, and Slumptown was an absolutely brilliant homage to a sci-fi classic.
If I were to pick one winner overall it would definitely have to be the latter (Slumptown), simply because it captured the humor of the audience as well as a very real and looming threat of artificial intelligence on our society. The relationship between Dave and Al is comical despite the perceived tension that is built from one man training a machine to be his permanent replacement. It’s a classic robot-discovering humanity type story with the modern twist of being in the ever familiar setting of a coffee shop. Would you trust a machine to make your perfect double-shot espresso, or do you pine for the human interaction you get from the pimple-faced barista at Starbucks?
Day One Summary:
I am absolutely thrilled to be attending Other Worlds Austin in its infancy, and fully expect it to grow year after year into one of Austin’s landmark film festivals. Bears and team have definitely poured their own passions for the genre into the efforts to create a fun and diverse festival. Despite already having my expectations blown away through both the opening feature and the segment of dystopic shorts, I will more than likely lie awake tonight in anticipation for what day 2 will bring.
Aside from the movies, the festival is definitely made all the more enjoyable by surrounding oneself with like-minded fans. It was encouraging to not only strike up conversations with random strangers in line, but to listen to the praise and discussion of quality science fiction erupting from every corner of the galaxy (highland theatre).
On the agenda for tomorrow is the centerpiece film of the festival, Time Lapse, which I am dying to see, as well as my choice of either Space Milkshake or Bloody Knuckles. It might just be my toughest decision of the week, but I know in any case I won’t leave disappointed.
– XOXO Airman Xley