Saturday, September 16, 2017

Stranded on Mars: Three Short Films (“The Sea of Perdition,” Errant Films, Shadow Theatre Films, 2006; “Last Flight,” New Zealand, 2011; “Last Sunrise,” Johnson-Royden Films, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In between the Outer Limits episode “The Invisible Enemy” and the feature Stranded, three shorts were shown at the Mars film screening in Golden Hill last night ( The first was The Sea of Perdition, a virtually abstract movie that appears from the comments on it on the above Web site (“An experimental short film portraying a stranded cosmonaut on Mars by cult favorite director Richard Stanley as part of the IBM 1401 - A Users Manual project -- one of five short films based on the 5th act of the album by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson”) to have been essentially a music video of Johannson’s electronic composition. As such it works; as narrative filmmaking it’s a lot more problematic, as a woman astronaut identified by the character name “Sly Delta Honey” (played by Maggie Moor, who’s also one of the three credited writers — though given that about all she does is walk around and give another character a Lesbian kiss, one wonders how much “writing” had to be done on this) walks around a location representing Mars. The Lesbian kiss is delivered to an apparition-like female form that emerges from a Martian lake, and it’s apparently an information transmittal something like the Vulcan mind-meld on Star Trek — what it looked like to me was that the apparition was assuming human form and kissing the heroine so she could download all her memories of her previous life on Earth. Richard Stanley’s direction is abstract and powerful if you like that sort of thing and don’t expect the film to make sense. 

Next up was Last Flight, a title that’s been used for quite a few movies at least since the 1920’s (though sometimes prefaced by the definite article) and in this case represented a 2011 production in which another female astronaut (women are doing considerably better breaking down the traditional sexist barriers in these movies than they are in real life!) is stranded on Mars and is also facing a leaky spacesuit that’s dwindling her oxygen supply down to unsustainable levels, and is walking desperately around the Martian landscape (this one was filmed in New Zealand, where there was enough unspoiled countryside left that it’s where Peter Jackson went to film The Lord of the Rings) until, realizing that there’s no way she’s going to be able to stay alive, as a final act of either desperation or rebirth she plants a bag of Earth seeds she and any other crew members that might have come up with her (we don’t actually see anyone else but we assume she didn’t go up there alone) were supposed to use as the basis for a future colony of Earthlings on Mars, who would naturally need something relatively familiar to eat. Then we see a seagull walking on the ground and I briefly thought writer/director Damon Keen was going to give us a twist-the-knife-in ending in which the seagull was going to dig up the seeds and eat them, though in the end the gull flies away (quite likely stock footage) and we get the impression that Life Will Go On even if Our Heroine’s won’t. 

The last short, Last Sunrise, was a 2014 production directed by John Johnson from a script he co-wrote with Rusty Royden, and like Stranded it was a great idea for a movie that failed in the execution — though much of it was quite creatively done. A number of people at the screening thought it overstayed its welcome — it’s 38 minutes long, an awkward length for any movie (too long to be a short, too short to be a feature) — but I thought quite the opposite: the basic conceit is worth expanding to feature length, especially if Johnson and Royden restructure the script to make the basic conceit clear from the get-go instead of breaking into the middle of their movie to introduce it. The basic conceit that deserves a better (and longer!) movie is that the Mars mission depicted was bankrolled by the Chinese government (though it flies the “flag of convenience” of Micronesia) but also was organized as a reality-TV show called Red Thesis, in which the entire Mars mission is being broadcast to Earth and edited with all the phony suspense points of a real “reality” show. (One of the neatest touches in the Johnson-Royden script — though some of the viewers at our screening were annoyed by it — is the euphemisms for common swear words the astronauts have to use because genuine profanity still can’t be aired on mainstream U.S. TV.) My suggestion to Johnson and Royden if they get the chance to do a feature on this premise would be to start out with their central character, Steven Drake (Gus Novack), dying of a spacesuit leak (another spacesuit leak?) on the Martian surface and continually have to stop his desperate search for breathable air to bark into a portable camera and tell the unseen TV audience what’s going on (before a crude jump cut to a newscaster gave their game away, Johnson and Royden had so carefully concealed that the Mars mission was also a reality-TV show that one thought, “You’d be using up your oxygen supply much less quickly if you’d just shut up!”) — and then the film would flash back to the entire genesis of the Red Thesis reality show and the full story of the mission, including how all but one of its members died (as one person at the screening rather macabrely joked they really did get “voted off the planet”) and how the last one ended up in his predicament. 

There are several features about the show that seemed deliberately annoying, like the nightmarish computer voice that keeps repeating to Drake that his oxygen supply is disappearing due to a leak in his spacesuit (something he already knew and certainly didn’t need to keep being reminded of!) and “Lassie,” a miniature robot Drake tows and/or lets follow him that keeps making continuous measurements of the Martian soil and analyses of what proportions of elements and minerals it consists of. “Lassie” doesn’t look at all canine, but whoever designed it gave it a dog logo that flashes on the bottom of the computer screen listing its measurements and, at the end, it starts barking as a signal, a warning or something. Even more than Stranded, Last Sunrise has the makings of a good movie trapped inside a not-so-good one; done right, the central premise could be a grim satire of the whole idea of “reality” television (I’d love to see someone with the right sort of nerve remake Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as a spoof of reality-TV shows, with the producers suddenly realizing that all the actors are dying for real during the scenes in which they’re supposed to “die” on screen) and a Hunger Games-like comment on the mores of a society which would put something like this on as “entertainment.”