still from The Gift

On Movies: The Gift; Unearthed; & Archetype

Independence on the Internet

Once, science fiction literature was vaunted for its friendliness to newcomers. Its big advantage was that there was no need for a special effects budget. Any extravagance or creative twist was possible for an author with a fertile imagination and a copy of Strunk and White.

Not only do the following three shorts illustrate how creative life has changed since the advent of the Internet, they imply that, for the first time, fans are actually able to comment on science fiction as a genre in a way that can be viewed collectively, taken seriously, and analyzed.

Still from The GiftThe Gift is an incredible feat from the Russian outfit Vuxicon. It is every bit what you wanted I, Robot to be. I could go on for pages about this one. Suffice it to say that it works on multiple levels, and that I wish I could read Russian so I could find out more about the people or person who made it.

Longer and far more meditative, Unearthed, unlike The Gift, relies less on visuals than on dialog. I found it a less excellent, though still compelling, short piece than the others I reviewed. Its scope is solid sci-fi tradition, though the gritty, realistic treatment is refreshing. Small studio Dalang Films has some decent credentials under its belt, including the London Film Festival and the Renovation Independent Fan Film Festival.

Watching independent film is an experience for which modern American culture does not prepare the viewer. In the first place, product placement is completely absent. Do not think for a minute that your mind misses this detail – your brain and mine have been trained from birth to recognize what is being sold to it via the language of cleverly placed Coke bottles and Harley-Davidson logos. A film bereft of product placement, however brief, gives one the disconcerting impression that the filmmakers are actually interested in the viewer. The result are films with the classy and direct feel of a prewar classic. Even the most mediocre of YouTube-hosted indie films are elevated by their lack of branding.

But the experience of watching an indie film on YouTube tends to negate this effect as advertising crowds the edges of the frame. Fullscreen mode alleviates this – sometimes. Between commentary, suggested features, advertising and any of a million other flashing distractions, I wish that these fantastic shorts were available in a quiet theater or ad-free host site instead of on a Google venture.

Still from Unearthed

Such is the lot of critics: to suffer for good art.

That said, each of these three films is well worth the trouble. The most Hollywood-ready of the three, Archetype has already been picked up for a full-length movie with Fox, hopefully with the same creative team. Like The Gift, it’s fast and flashy, with excellent CGI. Like Unearthed, it treats solid sci-fi territory with a refreshing human grittiness. Genre dwellers will know what’s going on intuitively, but will not be bored.

Unlike Archetype and The Gift, both of which draw their inspiration from modern Hollywood, Unearthed is based on old-fashioned primal terror, its treatment of the subject matter rooted solidly in The Twilight Zone and the science fiction department of EC Comics.

The reveal is handled with due solemnity. Earth is finished, all life obliterated completely, and the aliens who discover it are only looking for fuel to save their own planet from a vague but pressing crisis. Fear of death is amplified by the realization that, eventually, there will be no new generation to continue, and that even completely separate species will age, struggle for existence, and then pass away. In essence: nothing survives. Contrast this with Archetype, an essentially hopeful piece where a robotic soldier “wakes up” and realizes his humanity, and The Gift, an inspiring short in which robots and humans sacrifice their own lives for a desperate cause. Unearthed taps a slow-moving but deep-seated desperation that rises with the global temperature every year. It may be significant that it has received high marks at many indie film showings.

Of the three films examined here, this one has gotten the most attention from the “official” fan community so far. If indie film making shows us the true face of fandom, then is this what viewers are really concerned about? Compared to The Gift, this threat is possible enough. (Though I cannot speak for my readers, I hardly expect to have a robot butler within my lifetime. Or, for that matter, to be knifed over a magic box.) Unearthed is not really entertainment per se. It thrives in the tradition of old-school science fiction: pure commentary.

Still from ArchetypeWhile Archetype and The Gift arguably make topical comments as well, they are far less heavy-handed and much more subject to interpretation. In essence, both deal with class. Both feature robots who exhibit human emotional traits despite their formidable outward appearances, and both feature physical and psychological destruction of homes and home-like containers denoting safety. Those with knowledge and control are infiltrated and threatened by those who are considered incapable of disobeying orders by the very nature of their existence. This theme could well serve as a metaphor for modern indie sci-fi filmmaking itself.

The Gift is particularly interesting in its use of visuals. The robot butler’s fine but immobile veneer is gradually shredded by his enemies, revealing the raw, almost skeletal machinery beneath. The inner workings, so crude-looking, were concealed all along by a façade. Would its employers (owners?) have kept a servant whose inner processes were so frightening? The implication is that they didn’t want to know how it worked – they just wanted it to work. Likewise, the human characters in Archetype are both alarmed and irritated when the soldier becomes self-aware and demands to be treated as one of them. This, clearly, was not what he was made for.

Science fiction in particular is given to commentary, including political statements. Indie sci-fi has latched onto the zeitgeist of discontent that gave rise to both the Tea Party and Occupy movements in recent years. No surprise. After all, the people who make indie films are outsiders by definition, the 99% themselves. Hollywood does not have enough room for their numbers or for their serious self-examination. Sci-fi blockbusters deal overwhelmingly with epic battles between equal elites where the good guy wins. Even Dark Knight Rises, which called the 99% out as herald to an idealistic Robespierran disaster, ultimately pitted the strongest, smartest, richest, prettiest, craziest, weirdest people against one another in a battle for the survival of the little people. The establishment  generally makes movies for people who can afford to go to movies. From Avatar to Transformers, mainstream sci-fi is hardly by the people or of the people.

In contrast, indie outfits posting their work on YouTube have an audience of everyone, anyone, and all their friends who find themselves in most Saturday nights. Indie sci-fi is being made by outsiders already, so a perspective of social activism fits well with their own reality. The statements being made in this burgeoning arm of sci-fi are certainly far more in tune with the daily concerns of the average viewer than the average blockbuster. Archetype favors a robot who sees no need to undermine his own identity to fight for people who don’t respect him. There are no winners in Unearthed as the aliens confront the ultimate mortality. The Gift uses the impossibility of escape from a class structure to inspire sympathy for its brave but inexpressive protagonist, whose words and feelings all go unnoticed.

This is Occupy Science Fiction. It’s on YouTube. It’s better than what they sell in the stores.


The Gift
Runtime: 4:39
Director: Carl E. Rinsch
Released: December 2011

Runtime: 22:06
Director: Lindsay Harris & Stuart Leach
Released: October 2011

Runtime: 7:01
Director: Aaron Sims
Released: January 2012

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