Sci-Fi London Film Fest 2023
In 2023 Sci-Fi London returned to central London.
Decade's ago – far longer than I care to remember – the Sci-Fi London film Fest started off in central London at its West End and for the most part was located there. In recent years it migrated to Stratford East London. This at first might have seemed a retrograde step but Stratford station (literally five minutes walk away from the venue cinema) not only has rail, but DLR (District Light Rail) and underground (metro) connections, so it was relatively easy to get to even if you were from south of the Thames. However, cinema having not yet fully bounced back following the 2020/'21 CoVID years, has placed the future (read ownership and/or viability) of some cinemas in doubt and few could commit to being able to host a sizeable Fest so many months in advance. (I had foolishly thought that Stratford might be Sci-Fi London's home for some time, which is why I wrote an article on its 2022 Stratford incarnation.)
© Julie Perry & J. Cowie. Fest founder and director Louis Savy with your intrepid reporter.
This cinema venue uncertainty, combined with its founder and director feeling rather seriously uncle Dick, meant that this year's Fest might not have happened! However, the Fest has gained much momentum over the decades it is hard to put it down: it is relentless, bullets won't stop it!
This year's Fest was spread over four cinema venues: three in the warren of side streets of London's west End Leicester Square/Piccadilly and one in the Rich Mix Cinema in Shoreditch. The Fest has used that venue before: it is an ideal mix of community centre and a two screen cinema. The community facilities enabled the hosting of a small comics fayre and workshop together with a graphic novel launch, Henry Chebane and Stephen Baskerville's The Panharmonion Chronicles, among other goings on.
The comics panel.
Before moving on to some of the feature films on offer, it is worth mentioning that in common with other years, this year's fest had a 48 Hour Film Challenge. 48 Hour Film Challenges are something that a number of film fests run. The idea is that teams of amateur film makers are given a line or two of script and told to include an easily available prop to include (this is so they cannot cheat) and go away to make a short SF film in just two days. This year's Sci-Fi London 48 hour challenge took place three weeks after this year's Fest (Invitation introductory short video here. Everything in this video was taken from 5-minute short films that were made in 48 hours in previous challenges.) Click on the following film title links to see last year's (2022) 48-hour Challenge 2nd and 1st place winners respectively: Digital Core and The Crowd. Seeing these, I leave it to you to work out the short lines and prop the Challenge films had to include.
Years ago, back in the early days of the Fest, the Fest included an afternoon of screening the 48 Hour entries and I attended one of these (my favourite a whimsical comedy piece was not short-listed) but the winner – with the help of one of that year's professional judges – went on to make Monsters. If the name 'Gareth Edwards' rings a faint bell, he went on to make Star Wars: Rogue One! (Apparently, such was his attention to detail, that he shot the film on the same film stock as that use for the original Star Wars (1977) to ensure it had the same visual look.) However, since those times interest in the Fest's Challenge has grown so much that it would not be possible to screen all the entries in an afternoon session.
This year's Fest 48 Hour Challenge saw early entrants a chance to get a 30 day Adobe trial account that included 100gb of storage and full use of FRAME.IO: much thanks to sponsors Adobe and Frame.io. During the Fest itself there was sort of seminar cum workshop for amateur film makers on Micro-Budget Film-making. This covered advice on script-writing, production techniques and post-production wizardry. Professionals from Action Xtreme were there and they were also involved in the judging of this year's, forthcoming (the competition: this year's 48 Hours Challenge was held after the film Fest. In addition to being involved in the judging they were also on the look-out for teams that could create micro-budget feature films which they would help financially support. In short, the Fest is continuing what it has done in the past to nurture today's amateur talent that might become tomorrow's professional providers of fantastic film.
Now, I think it is important to make the afore point. Whilst it is good to have seen a past Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Challenge winner to go on to make a Star Wars film, importantly he made Monsters first, as the best of science fiction is not formulaic giant franchises such as Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. True, you'd be hard to credit it given that things like the Hugo and Nebula Award short-lists (and indeed occasional winners) nearly always feature giant franchise calendar. In part this is because such films are invariably shown in most western cinemas and for a good number of weeks: indeed our own annual best SF books and films of the year bit of fun include giant franchise films and (as you can see scrolling down the page) a number, sadly mostly franchise films, have been short-listed and even one major awards. Very sadly, few of our non-franchise suggestions win awards even if they are occasionally short-listed for them.
Non-franchise films are more intellectually demanding if only because they do not rely on an audience already knowing something of the films' backdrop, characters and plot set-up: non-franchise films have to establish all of that as well as tell the story within the confines of a single offering and that means that both the film-makers and the audience have to work that little bit harder. Yet for my money non-franchise films box office hits such as Virtuosity, The Fifth Element, Contact, The Truman Show, Minority Report, 28 Days Later, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shaun of the Dead, Children of Men, District 9, Paul, Ex Machina, Inception, Looper, Arrival, Lucy, The Martian and Everything, Everywhere All At Once are streets ahead of something like The Avengers: Big War With Krypton Across the Universe VI. (OK, I invented that, but you get the gist of my jib; non-franchise films are, intellectually at least, far more rewarding..)
And the above examples are just the box office big hitters. However, if you do not mind fewer special effects, shooting on cheaper kit, less experienced direction and acting, and be forgiving of a less than blockbuster or even a minimal budget, then you may well be surprised at the degree of sense-of-wonder and inventiveness of some of the offerings at film festivals. Many (if not most) of these never make it to a wide cinematic release. Perhaps, if you are lucky you just might just about find behind a subscription wall of some streaming platform. Others you may see at fests are worthy foreign, non-Anglophone productions that often go under the Brit- N. American-Australasian fan radar. Film fests are therefore worth checking out, especially if you are into art house SF and want to go beyond eye-candy offerings. Even if you cannot go to a fest in person, check out the trailers of the films on offer and if something tickles your fancy, seek out the DVD. (Hot tip. Keep a running list of films you wish to see as often DVDs come out months after their first appearance on the Fantastic Film Fest circuit.)
And so we come on to the main offerings at this year's which were teased in this year's promotional micro-video for the fest…
Here are the details of just some of the films…
The fest opened with the UK premiere of UFO Sweden (2022) – and yes, Sci-Fi London is known for always including a number of UK and even occasionally World premieres in its programme. This screening of UFO Sweden was its British premiere. In subtitles, UFO Sweden is set in the year 1996. The settlement of Norrküping is home to a peculiar bunch of outsiders who dedicate their days to delving into UFO sightings across Sweden. Their tireless efforts result in debunking an impressive 99% of the alleged encounters, but it is the remaining one percent that ignites an unyielding flame within them. Among the group is Denise, a spirited teenager whose father is both the founder of their collective and a rumoured victim of an alien abduction back in the 1980s. Fuelled by her personal connection and an insatiable curiosity, Denise turns to her comrades in search of answers, longing to unravel the enigma surrounding her father's inexplicable disappearance.
As they delve into the depths of her father's covert archives, a fresh perspective emerges, casting newfound illumination upon the perplexing puzzle. Yet, they soon encounter formidable opposition from powerful entities determined to conceal this classified knowledge, for reasons yet undisclosed… The fest billed this as 'the Lovechild of the X-Files and Stranger Things. (Trailer here). This Fest opening film came with an added treat of a cast question-and-answer session with the audience.
Phi 1.618 (2022) was another of the fest's UK premieres. It is a Bulgarian offering in subtitles. It explores a dystopian future where science conquers death, and a nation of bio-titans, a breed of aseχual, immortal men, has been created. The female seχ and procreation have become obsolete. As the Earth turns toxic, the bio-titans are eager to colonise the cosmos on board a colossal spaceship, The Spinning Top, taking with them only one female body kept barely alive… (Trailer here).
One of the Fest's World premieres was Ozma (2023). This British offering is a first contact story. After enduring yet another sleepless night plagued by the weight of his wife's absence, Jeff, an insomniac tormented by grief, stumbles upon a peculiar alien creature reminiscent of a jellyfish in the alley adjacent to his residence. Astonishingly, this otherworldly being establishes a telepathic connection with Jeff, imploring him to aid in its concealment from menacing pursuers.
The film explores profound themes of loss, memory, and existential significance. This monochromatic cinematic offering artfully weaves together experimental elements, paying homage to silent films, film noir, and the captivating allure of 1950s B-movies. The Fest says that its ethereal ambiance transports viewers into a dreamlike realm, further enhanced by the frequent appearances of musicians, who provide a captivating live musical commentary that accentuates the unfolding drama… (Trailer here.)
Following the screening, the audience was able to have a question-and-answer session with the film's director Keith John Adams.
Alas there is not the space here to go into detailed coverage. But what were perhaps the best offerings of this year's fest?
Many film fests assemble a small panel of experts to ascertain their fest's 'best film'. They also ask the audience for their view. Sci-Fi London do it differently, while they too ask the audience, they do not assemble a panel of experts as, since the organisers themselves select the programme, they already know the films and are quite capable of deciding which is the best, thank you very much. So, no panel of experts for good old SFL.
Here then are the best feature films and best shorts as decided by the marvellous SFL organising folk and also best as determined by the cinematically literate SF fans who attend the festival and give it meaning.
The SFL Organiser Best Feature was Once Upon A Time In The Future: 2121 (2022). The fest's screening of this Turkish, subtitled offering was its UK premiere. It is set in the future when the Earth's surface has become uninhabitable due to the climate crisis and famine. Family units exist in underground homes run by a strict authoritarian regime. Population numbers are closely controlled and the old must be euthanised to make way for new lives…
The SFL Audience Best Feature was The Bystanders (2022). This was a British offering from the director Gabriel Foster Prior. Now, have you ever wondered why the animal excreta happens to you despite your best efforts…? Well, it might just be the 'bystanders' screwing with your life because they are bored...! Bystanders are invisible immortals supposed to act like guardian angels. Each Bystander is tasked with watching a human, but they have been recruited from the human world and are mostly bitter people with no friends; a bunch of misfits and loners…
Into this comes new recruit Pete. He is being shown the ropes by his world-weary tutor Frank, who is mostly irritated by their subjects, and for fun suggests they swap their charges.
This is a superb SF satire of modern life. Imagine the 1954 Phil Dick short story 'Adjustment Team', that was made into the film The Adjustment Bureau, as an Ealing comedy…
The SFL Organiser Best Short was 'Sylvie Made It' (2022). Ever been rude to customer service? Let me tell you, working in a call centre is literally hell…
The Sci-Fi London people say: This short film (23 minutes, subtitled from Belgium) reminded us of the best Twilight Zone stories. It cleverly sets up a world we can feel very familiar with, and taps into so many frustrations we have all experienced. A brilliant performance by Isabelle Anciaux, and tight direction (Adrien Orville), this is a wonderful short film.
The SFL Audience Best Short was a tie – I do love it when that happens as we get a double shout out – with the shorts 'Lost In The Sky' (2023, from Sweden but in English) and 'Dark Cell' (2023, from France, subtitled).
Sweden's 'Lost In The Sky's' screening at the fest was its UK premiere. Just 12 minutes long, it concerns a rescue robot who dreams of becoming a hero, but in his search for survivors, he makes a dark discovery, leaving him with a devastating choice…
The screening at SFL of France's 'Dark Cell' was also a UK premiere. This 25 minute long offering sees two convicts in an orbital prison doing what they usually do, which is not much. Then two panicked guards, armed to the teeth, burst into their cell…
I could not find a trailer for 'Lost In The Sky', but then it is difficult to trail a short, short film. However, here is the one for 'Dark Cell'.
In addition to the comics afternoons there were other things including cyber techno sessions. There was also some science (in the past I have contributed to SFL's programme, once co-leading a science for film-makers workshop and then, with microbiologist Lewis Dartnel, a presentation on exobiology). This year the principal science theme was climate change and the cinematic arts. Despite some professional involvement with climate change science, I was not involved and this was possibly a good thing: the discussion was mainly on the challenges of addressing climate change (mitigation) whereas my own climate focus is the science and impacts of climate change. Furthermore, the past half decade I've moved more to other aspects of Earth system science (deep time co-evolution of life and planet) as I found myself getting too depressed investigating the trajectory we seem to be firmly on. Anyway, this year, preceding the discussion there was a screening of four climate-themed SF shorts to help spark audience and panel debate.
In addition the fest put on an evening on mutually assured nuclear destruction. This included a screening of the BBC documentary The War Game (1966). When I saw that back in the mid-1970s it scared me witless, so I gave it a miss this time round: though do not let that put you off; everyone, especially politicians, should see it!
And that's the briefest of re-caps of the 2023 iteration of the Festival of Fantastic Films. Hopefully, we will have many more to come in future years.
Meanwhile, you can find Sci-Fi London at www.sci-fi-london.com.
Its YouTube channel is at YouTube.com/@scifilondon.