Seventh Annual London Sci-fi Film Festival

6th May 2008 – 9.53 am

This weekend saw me spend about half my time inside a cinema watching sci-fi films, at the seventh annual sci-fi film festival in London. This year's schedule of films was far superior to the previous year, where a misguided collaboration with a horror genre magazine led to half the films being horror films and diluting the sci-fi to where there was little point in taking a trip to watch maybe two films eight hours apart. The schedule this year was perhaps one of the best yet, with a good selection, a good quantity, with sufficient time between screenings to allow for breaks and delays, and the late films didn't require taking a night bus to get home. The organisers are defintely much more practiced now than when they started, and the festival continues to grow.

I met my two festival buddies on Friday evening, outside the Apollo West End, and headed inside for the first of the films that year. Suspension follows a man who after a traumatic event in his life finds that he can stop time whilst still being able to move himself and interact with objects when time is stopped. I was a little concerned that the film would degenerate in to a bunch of effects shots that showed just how clever the effects were to let someone walk around a lot of paused objects, but luckily that concern was unfounded. The sci-fi basis of the film drove the plot instead of being the plot. With being able to stop time the chap drew inappropriate inferences about a relationship, and we follow the results and fallout from his apparently innocent endeavours. It's a fairly standard stalker film overall, but the sci-fi angle adds a neat twist, as well as the suggestion that the pair are coupled in some way.

After Suspension we had a short break before heading back in to the cinema to watch the Russian big budget fantasy film Wolfhound. We were told in advance, with the festival director introducing each film, that Wolfhound was a fantasy film by numbers, with everything you'd expect to see in a fantasy film, all in the right place, and he wasn't wrong. Depending on your point of view, it was either horribly clichéd or textbook filmmaking. I tended to flip back and forth between those two viewpoints, although there wasn't really any time I could fault the film for its production values. Everything looked good, sounded good, and was presented beautifully.

If you like fantasy adventure you really can't go wrong with this film, but there almost nothing new in the plot or characters, from the young child who sees his family and village slaughtered by a villain who can be identified by a tattoo so that he can be hunted down when the child escapes from slavery, to the princess who disguises herself as a caravan guard to avoid capture. Quite why the princess isn't revealed sooner is a puzzle, one that had me wondering if my guess that the boy guard was in fact a beautiful woman in disguise was actually the case, leading me to think that, well, he was awfully cute...

One point that pleased me was that after incidentally rescuing a couple of people from an evil lord the hero didn't automatically join them on a mission, in a D&D meta-gaming moment, and needed a clear motivation to stay with them. However, the ultimate battle was weak, with the evil foe being little more than an amorphous CGI blob that the hero fought by waving a fifty-foot lightsabre in its general direction until the special effects budget finally ran out. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by pointing that out, because it was quite unengaging. The film was perhaps a little long too, but will surely interest anyone with an interest in fantasy films.

The next day saw us get in to London for an early start to a twenty two hour film watching marathon. The first film of the day was 11 Minutes Ago, a time-travel story where a man comes back from the future and accidentally finds himself as part of a wedding party. He can only stay for eleven minutes at a time, but he is compelled to keep returning to the party even after his specific task is complete, and he learns from his first trip that he comes back even earlier than previous trips and has to piece together why he would make such trips when he could travel to any point in time. The forwards narrative of the time-traveller we follow coupled with the mostly back-to-front narrative of the party-goers offers an interesting story that only suffers from some awkward dialogue in places, although considering the subject matter that is probably only because it is a difficult subject to write about without being awkward. Being a relatively cheap independent effort the sound levels in the film are a little off, but the film itself is a good low-budget effort and worth seeing.

Netherbeast, Inc. was presented at the festival couple of years back under a similar name but as a short film. It was well-received and expanded in to a full-length version, with the likes of Dave Foley, Judd Nelson and Robert Wagner starring. The film is more fantasy than sci-fi and the comedy is nicely scattered through dialogue, characterisations, and occasional background objects like the motivational poster declaring that 'Communicating is key to communication'. The overall plot is fairly standard, but the subject matter gives the needed twist to keep it fresh and there are other little twists throughout the film that makes it enjoyable and fun to watch and recommend.

Before the next film started the festival director had a treat to show us. With the next Bale/Nolan Batman film being released soon there has been a viral campaign in the works, where about a dozen prints of the trailer were released that had been scratched up, supposedly by the Joker, and released to cinemas. After these trailers had been shown the Joker would run through the audience and hand or throw the scratched-up film to someone in the audience. As it turned out, the one copy of these trailers outside of the US was shown around the corner in Leicester Square the previous Monday and the chap who got the copy of the trailer was in the audience for the next film. He had gratiously given the trailer to the festival coordinaters and they were happy to show it before the current film, so everyone there got a surprise showing of one-of-a-kind trailer for The Dark Knight, which was rather splendid. The new film looks as good as the previous one would suggest, and the Joker couldn't look more suitable to the role.

With the special trailer out of the way everyone settled in to watch the anime Vexille. The basic plot is that a covert US unit is to infiltrate the electronically hidden and entirely insular Japan after some terrorist action suggests something far more sinister at foot. There are mechs, gunfights, big explosions and races so fast your eyes will water, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable film that although not entirely unpredictable pushes all the right buttons and employs some wonderful characterisations. Even without the good film behind it I would still have recommended seeing Vexille just for the animation. It may not be the only film to employ whatever techniques and technologies that it does but it's the first I've seen that looks as visually incredible and stunning as it does. It must be entirely computer animated, considering the fluid movement of, well, everything in every frame, including the dynamic lighting effects. The level of detail presented is mind-blowing. Initial scenes take place in a snow-covered landscape, and the snow on the ground moves as you would expect snow to move, and the snow falling is not simply a single layer of flakes falling separate from the rest of the animation but it looks like each particle is a flake in its own space.

It's not just the backgrounds that benefit from this level of detail, every item or character is rendered with amazing clarity. The antangonist sneers from behind dark glasses with such subtlety yet distinctness that you could be forgiven for thinking he was a human actor. Individual characters do not lose their individuality just because they are in a crowd or not the focus of attention in Vexille, with each character, even in large crowd scenes, constantly in some separate motion, and characters can be seen to be shifting as they breathe even in wide shots. And when the audience is offered a point-of-view shot from the end of a gun barrel that is being pointed directly towards us the hand that holds the gun and thus the gun itself subtlely shifts around as if the person holding it is a person and not animated face on a body. This attention to detail is simply staggering, and combining it with the fluidity of movement that allows the speed and agility of mechs to be shown at full speed without any animation artefacts, offering an awe-inspiring view of what it can be like to run around a corner at fifty miles per hour, results in a wonderfully crafted film that simply has to be seen by anyone who enjoys animation. I have to get this on DVD when it is released, even if it won't be quite the same as the glorious 35 mm print we were shown.

Chrysalis had been shown as a trailer before a couple of films that we had been to already, and it was a little confusing. When we were looking at what films to watch I was under the impression that Chrysalis was a French production but the trailer had an English voice-over. It was clear from the first section of dialogue that the film was indeed French, and the trailer seemed to give the wrong impression about the whole point of the film as well. The trailer didn't make the film look bad, but it did make it look almost like a different film. I'm not sure what I can write about the film without giving too much away, much like the trailer, but it deals with identity through the eyes of a plastic surgeon who nearly loses her daughter in an accident and a gritty Interpol officer who has to cope with a new partner. It's an interesting story and the sci-fi aspect again helps the plot along instead of being the plot. The only drawback to the film is that the colours are so dark and muted throughout that it is almost like watching a black and white film, without much of the white. It was reassuring to exit the cinema to see colour again, although I suspect the almost-sensory deprivation nature of the colours helped the film along in its own way.

Chrysalis was the last regular film of the day for us, and because two of us were sticking around for the MST3K all-nighter it was also the last regular film of the festival. The all-nighter is a tradition from the first London Sci-Fi Film Festival, where four related films are shown back-to-back from midnight in to the early hours of the morning, and for the past few years one screen has been dedicated to showing Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes. The combination of really bad films with sardonic voice-overs from robots and a cinema full of sleep-deprived fans creates a fabulous atmosphere and really adds to the experience. Again, we were offered a treat, this time in the form of a Rifftrax film. Whereas MST3K generally only gets old and low-budget films to mock, because the producers need permission from the rights-holders to screen the film, Rifftrax needs no permission as it is an entirely separate audio track and this allows them to make fun of any film they want. This meant that the first film presented in the all-nighter was the Rifftrax version of Battlefield Earth, and apparently it is the first time in the world that a Rifftrax has been presented in a cinema.

Along with Battlefield Earth we also saw MST3K versions of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders and The Creeping Terror. They were all pretty bad films, and bad in their own special way, with Battlefield Earth being the most unforgiveably bad, to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians being the most understandably but also unintentionally silly. Impromptu naps were taken through some of the films, but no great loss of narrative structure or character motivation was ever lost. The last film ended at around eight in the morning, and we all stumbled out in to the morning sunlight and made our zombie-like journeys home for some sleep.

The Seventh Annual London Sci-fi Film Festival was a fun, interesting and throught-provoking collection of genre films that I would be unlikely to see in any other forum, and was another excellent weekend of film watching. I hope that next year's event is just as good, although we may not watch so many films as well as booking an all-nighter next time, we're getting too old.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed.