Convention Review

Sci-Fi London
Convention or Festival?

Sci-Fi London in the context
of the SF convention scene.


The Sci-Fi London film Fest began in the iconic year of 2001 and so by rights the 2022 event should have been the 22nd in the series but, alas, we have had the CoVID-19 lockdown years which saw a hiatus in physical events. However, 2022 saw conventions resume. Being held in May was also a plus as that month is part of the reduced CoVID summer season, and even if vaccinated, that is a plus.

Evolution of SF conventions and fests
SF conventions and film fests come in all sorts of flavours. For example, if you like small, personal gatherings with a few seasoned directors and actors, and your fantastic films with a veer towards vintage fantastical horror, then Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films will be your bag. Conversely, Sci-Fi London is a little bigger with a firm science fiction focus within the fantastic film spectrum and it is where you can see the latest SF offerings primarily from independent film makers.

Film fests today are most welcome and serve a most useful role. I remember, back in the day (the 1970 and '80s) SF conventions such as the British national Eastercon and the regional Novacon (the two stalwarts of the SF diary back then) always included films. In the 1970s, we only had three television channels and the local cinema. So if you did not see a film on general release then you had to catch it should it happen to air on TV. Those were your only choices and sometimes, if you knew a film was going to be broadcast on television, you would especially stay in or have a get together with a few friends to watch it. So having films at conventions was a real plus.

By the mid-1980s video tape players and recorders were beginning to become common and by the late '80s even every medium-sized village had their own video tape rental shop. However, films at SF conventions were still valuable as if you had someone who was cinematically literate on the convention organising team, they could provide access to rarely-seen independent offerings. The problem was having someone who was cinematically literate on the convention committee and this was rare. That, and the sheer hassle of projecting films, meant that the stalwart SF conventions in Britain began to drop their film programmes. Having said that, some conventions get their act together and occasionally put on brilliant film programme streams: the 2007 Eurocon and 2010 Worldcon, for example, had excellent, well thought out film programmes.

Today, post 2010 and in the 2020s, with most SF cons sadly eschewing films, even with a plethora of television channels, there is almost paradoxically a greater need for films at conventions. The broadcast channels tend to buy films for screening a number of times, and some channels are clones of other channels but time-shifted one hour. So the choice of films though not bad, is not as good as it might be. And then in the 2020s we have films made by streaming platforms, which is all well and good unless you don't subscribe to them. Indeed, there are today so many streaming platforms that few subscribe to them all: most don't and so miss out on their SF unless they buy the DVD (which, in any case, are now going out of fashion).

Also today, the technology has so improved and become cheaper, that it is far easier for independents to make their own films on a reasonable budget. All this means is that there is a lot of new film, as well as vintage offerings, out there, it is just a question of finding the good stuff. This is where film fests come in. They do the research for you and all you have to do is decide what you want to watch.

Some film fests are run very much like an SF convention. For example, the Festival of Fantastic Films was founded by Harry Nadler and Tony Edwards. Both hail from the UK Eastercon scene of the 1960s and '70s and that Fest up to Harry's passing was run very much like an SF convention which included having Progress Reports typically nine and four months in advance of the event. These are very important if you are to attract people from a way off and those who have limited annual leave and/or need to book it in advance; such folk need tempting. Other film fests, have less of a convention feel.

Sci-Fi London is run more as a pop-up event, though this in fact would be doing it a bit of an injustice and belies the value of its content. The community feel is there but there seems an element of last-minute organisation about it. If you know about Sci-Fi London then great, if you do not then your finding out about it and some of the ancillary information you will need if you are to decide to attend from outside the area is all rather happenstance. This, in part, is why this article is being written.

Up to recent years, Sci-Fi London was based around Piccadilly and mainly at the Apollo West End in Lower Regent Street but today has a new home at the Stratford Picture House in East London. It is actually very easy to get to if you live in London as the Stratford Picture House is literally six minute's walk from Stratford rail station with its underground (metro), rail and DLR (district light rail) connections. If you are coming from further away, so commuting is not really an option, there are hotels nearby: two well within five minutes walk from the venue (see map below).

The Stratford Picture House itself has two screens and a reasonably sized bar / café area. It is also next door to a Pizza Express (see picture above) that has an outdoor area, and both the restaurant and Picture House face onto a small pedestrian square which has a few public seats if you need a break from the indoors.


The Programme
The Programme has changed a little over the years. There used to be an SF film 'pub quiz' and ancillary events which some years included the presentation of the Clarke (book) Award. These extras did add something, though they can take a little organising: quizzes need questions after all.

Most years prior to the CoVID hiatus the programme had two streams of feature films. There are also usually four or five sessions of short films. In 2022 there were five, each of these short film sessions having its own theme: not what it seems;  robots;  alien food;  artificial intelligence;  and dystopias. The beauty of having a session of several short films is that if there is one you do not like there will be another along in 15 minutes time.

Regarding feature films, in 2022, the Fest opened with The Innocents (2021) from Norway (subtitled). From the director of Blind and The Worst Person in the World, Eskil Vogt, this is an outstanding piece of cinema, but not for the faint-hearted.  During a bright, long-day Nordic summer, a group of children reveal their dark and mysterious powers when the adults aren’t looking. In this original and gripping thriller, playtime takes a dangerous turn.  Unlike in Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, these kids are not ganging up on their adult carers. At times reminiscent of the more teenage Chronicle, the simplicity of the sparingly deployed effects adds realism that will haunt your imagination long after watching. (Trailer here.)

Rani Rani Rani (2022) is a refreshing South Asian indie (subtitled) that sidesteps mystical and spiritual influences and revels in an SFnal world.  Rani, played by Tannistha (Brick Lane) Chatterjee, lives in an almost-abandoned Indian village. For Rani, it’s another ordinary day populated by her feckless husband, his brother and ruthless sister-in-law, all fighting about money.  While Rani is seeking out some peace and quiet she happens upon some guys demonstrating an experimental device to a potential buyer. They ask Rani if she will be their guinea pig, and she’s lured into their machine. She emerges seemingly unscathed, but something has changed, the device has created another version of Rani… and that’s just the start of her problems. (Trailer here.)

There were also a few World Premieres.  Doctor Who Am I (2022) Documentary filmmaker, Vanessa Yuille (in her debut feature) follows friend and co-director, Matthew Jacobs (British writer of the 1996 TV film, Doctor Who) as he is reluctantly pulled back into the fandom that rejected his work 25 years earlier.  The journey not only becomes hilarious and emotionally perilous for the duo but also reveals a touching and quirky face-off between the American Doctor Who fans and Matthew himself.  As they explore the fandom, Matthew unexpectedly finds himself a kindred part of this close-knit, yet vast, family of fans. The documentary deals with the desire to belong to a community, and how people can become nourished and enriched by the experience. (Trailer here.)

The Deal

Another World Premiere was The Deal (2022). After a pandemic has left the planet devastated with insufficient resources to maintain the human population, the totalitarian governing body, The Bureau, has set up ‘The Deal’.  The terms are simple: accept The Deal, and you’ll have work, a home and medical care for the next twenty years. At the end of the time period you must sacrifice your life for the greater good.  Tala took The Deal when she was pregnant and has spent the ensuing nineteen years selflessly raising her daughter, Analyn so that she would never have to take The Deal herself.  Just five days before Tala is scheduled to die, Analyn becomes very ill. A life-saving procedure with Tala as donor is beyond their financial means and so begins their adventure to find a way to avoid The Bureau and keep them both alive. (Trailer here.)

The final World Premiere was Britain's Deus (2022) starring Claudia (Farscape, Pitch Black) Black. Earth is on the brink of an environmental disaster. The population has risen to more than 20 billion and huge areas of the planet are uninhabitable. Against this backdrop, a massive black sphere is discovered in the orbit of Mars. The Sphere begins to transmit a single word in every language: Deus (God).  Commercial spaceship, The Achilles is sent to investigate but, on approaching the red planet, it becomes damaged by a strange beam of light emanating from the sphere. Will the crew survive and discover the origin of the sphere and its purpose? (Trailer here.)

And if there were World Premieres, there were UK ones too.  Annular Eclipse (2021) from China (subtitled) sees a dystopian future. A cure for Alzheimer’s has given rise to technology that enables near-perfect brainwashing and memory editing.  Two contract killers, Ge and Song, carry out daily executions for the organisation. Ge has become a deeply troubled man, sustaining nightmares and flashes of suppressed memory.  On their next assignment, Ge’s flashbacks aren’t ones he recognises; it seems that someone is manipulating his memory and their latest target is someone important from his past. The assassins must infiltrate the Brain Science Corporation to find out the truth.

Other films included the A Tear in the Sky (2022). It is a UFOlogy documentary which – being fictional, fake news science – was a little out of place in an SF film fest. (I'm a scientist, no apologies, I have no place for this – what Sheldon Cooper would call – malarkey. Let's keep the balderdash and bumpkin out of science fiction!) I suppose it was on the programme to sucker in sciolists to turn them on to proper science fiction…? (I know, I am lovely and charitable, and try to see some good in everything.) Having said that perhaps Sci-Fi London was trying to inoculate us against stupidity?

For the 2022 Fest, Sci-Fi London organiser opined: "2022 seems to be the craziest year so far. A Russian decides his neighbours are fascists and goes on a killing spree, the leaders in one of the ‘stans think that seeing any part of the female human is dangerous and our politicians no longer care if we catch them lying. It is time to do some serious work on either time travel or multiverse mining. Somewhere, there must be a better version of all this. In the meantime, apart from doing our bit to help our neighbours and our worldship, we need to spend time in science fiction stories… Train your brain, resist the mush, the fakery and those that would have you know more about actors’ marriages than what we are doing to our oceans."

There was also a golden oldie in the mix and for the 2022 Sci-Fi London there was an old, 1973, film set in the then future of 2022, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (his last film). Directed by Richard (Fantastic Voyage & 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) Fleischer it was, of course Soylent Green.  Based on the 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! by the legendary Harry Harrison, this film is a cocktail of police procedural and eco-disaster science fiction.  The Earth is overpopulated and in trouble. Millions are hungry and homeless, and the Soylent Corporation is supplying Soylent Green. a high-protein foodstuff allegedly made from plankton, but is it?  Frank Thorn (Heston), a cynical NY detective is called in to investigate the death of a Soylent executive, and he soon suspects that it was assassination. And so begins the hunt for the truth…


Left: Soylent Green poster. The film is set in 2022.

It has to be said that while both the book and the film are an SF police procedural set in an overpopulated world, the book does not share the film's concluding conceit.  Harry did, though, like the film's opening sequence by Charles Braverman. (You can see it here.)

Two ways to attend Sci-Fi London
This article began by noting that SF conventions came before SF film fests, but you also need to know that there are two ways of attending Sci-Fi London. The first is to just drop in for the occasional film. I have to confess this is what I usually do. For my getting to the fest involves a door-to-door a couple of hours commute which is sort of borderline do I commute in or do I make a commitment staying in a local hotel? In 2022, most of the evening films ended a little before 10pm which was pushing it for myself in terms of last busses in the home straight. However if you live in NE London, or even central London with direct rail, underground and DLR connections to Stratford, then coming along for two or three films or a shorts session is a real option.  This option is fine because tickets for the films and sessions are sold individually.

The other way to attend is to treat it as if it were more an SF convention and go residential at a local hotel. Unfortunately, here Sci-Fi London doesn't really join the dots (no Progress Reports, no information on local hotels, or even which hotel visiting film makers may be staying in) but you do have this article.

There are a number of hotels near the Picture House. Perhaps the most ideal is the three-star Moxy Hotel (86 Great Eastern Road, E15 1GR). This is situated midway between Stratford rail station and the Picture House. Another, two minutes walk just around the corner from the Picture House but further away from the station though under 8 minutes walk from the station, is the two-star Ibis Hotel (1A Romford Rd, E15 4LJ).

As there are no programme items in the morning those staying in local accommodation can spend it in London site seeing. London's Liverpool Street is only 20 minutes away by train and from there it is only a couple of stops on the underground to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. Conversely, a more leisurely Central Line underground from Stratford and in about 30 minutes you can get to Tottenham Court Road for West End shopping (including Forbidden Planet bookshop).

As for eating out in Stratford there are a number of restaurants within a 10-minute walk radius of either hotel as well as gastro pubs.

Attending Sci-Fi London more as a convention is also possible as not only are there tickets for individual films, but if you are planning to see more than two thirds of the films you may find it cost-effective to buy an all-Festival ticket/pass. Here there are some hidden advantages.

You see, in addition to the films there are a couple of extras: primarily the opening and closing night receptions. These are usually closed items for film makers visiting the fest, some of the great and good within London's SF community, and those close to the Fest's organisation, sponsors and so forth. In addition, those who have bought all-Festival tickets/passes get into these events too. The opening reception night is also a good way to identify fellow all-event attendees.

Sci-Fi London is an annual event so do check out there website in the spring to see when it is on.


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