I only spent a day at the International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, but the four films I saw managed to cover a pretty good range: two documentaries, one actual sf film and one fantasy gave a pleasingly varied spread.
The day started with a definite highlight: a new film directed by William Shatner. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type. And yet it’s true: his documentary The Captains managed to be funny, interesting and moving.
The basic idea is that Shatner is jetting around the world to interview the various other actors to have played Captains in various versions of Star Trek: Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and Chris Pine. There’s every reason to fear this might not work. Shatner, after all, is probably the closest thing America has to Tom Baker. Like Baker, he is indelibly linked to a role in a sci-fi series, and has been happily playing a caricatured version of himself for so long that it’s impossible to tell where the persona ends and the real person begins. But while there’s a fair amount of Shatner doing his thing (wandering around a Trek convention and enjoying the whoops as people notice him), there’s also plenty of space for the other actors to talk – although Brooks prefers to answer questions through the magical language of jazz rather than English. (Is he like this all the time? It must be exhausting for everyone else.)
Along the way, interesting parallels emerge: all the actors had a stage background before being cast in Trek (though the tiny clip we see of Shatner in Shakespeare suggests his liking for generous slices of ham didn’t start with Where No Man Has Gone Before). A couple cite great teachers for inspiring their interest in the arts. All talk about how the long hours demanded by weekly TV shows affected their personal lives; in the most moving sequence, a clip of Shatner and Bakula laughing ruefully over stories of their divorces (Bakula’s was during his time on Quantum Leap) segues to Stewart admitting that his greatest regret is how he behaved during his two marriages.
Shatner doesn’t completely put his ego aside. He credits Stewart’s approach to the role, as stated during their interview, with helping him overcome his embarrassment at being associated with Trek. At that point, the cynic in me did perk up, asking: Really, Bill? You had this epiphany only just now, after how many films and conventions, during the making of your film? While I don’t doubt that Shatner’s perception of his most famous work has shifted in the way he describes, the idea that it took this long felt driven more by the need to give the documentary a narrative resolution than by strict chronological accuracy. But that’s a minor point. The Captains is a very entertaining film, and while it is obviously of particular interest to Trek fans, it should also appeal to anyone interested in hearing actors talk about their craft.
The second documentary of the day, Eric Solstein’s The Golden Age of Science Fiction, is likely to appeal to a narrower audience. The subject is John W Campbell Jr, legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine whose reign spanned over thirty years. The picture that emerges from the various talking heads is occasionally contradictory; the jury may be permanently out on whether he was the appalling racist and anti-semite painted in some anecdotes, or whether, as other suggest, he just liked being contrary to inspire a reaction. The most interesting part of the film is a 1965 short by James Gunn, Lunch with John Campbell, which records a lunch-cum-editorial discussion between Campbell and two of his writers, including Harry Harrison, as they attempt to pitch Campbell an SF version of Lifeboat. Later, I wondered what they would have made of Eric Hayden’s The Last Push, which was a lifeboat story of sorts. Khary Payton (who is very good) plays astronaut Michael Forrest, who is woken from hibernation by a technical malfunction aboard the first manned flight to Jupiter’s moon Europa, where evidence of life has been spotted. With his co-pilot dead and the habitation module wrecked, Forrest is stuck in a tiny room, with communication subject to long delays, obliged to rewire the ships engines in order to get back to Earth – a journey which takes several years.
You can’t imagine this particular space oddity having much life outside festivals; certainly it would be too tough a sell for a theatrical release and I must confess that had I been watching on DVD, my finger may have connected with the fast forward button. The real issue is that it’s a struggle to imagine Forrest, or anyone, staying sane, stuck in one room over that length of time (and I was impressed with the way his one set of clothes still looked as good as new at the end – maybe they’re made from some super futuristic fabric). Payton just about keeps it believable, and the film does have some very pretty FX shots, but this is ultimately a noble effort that doesn’t quite come off.
My final film of the day, Kurt Kuenne’s Shuffle, was a very different kettle of fish. A romantic fantasy, it follows photographer Lovell Milo (TJ Thyne) who is, for reasons unknown to him, living his days in a completely random order. One day he is 92; the next, 30; the next, ten. He becomes convinced this is happening so that he can change a tragic event in his life; all he has to do is work out what that was, when it happened, and how he can avoid it.
Festival Director Louis Savy assured me this film would make me cry. I insisted that was highly unlikely, on the grounds that I am cold and dead inside, while secretly hoping he was right. Sadly, my tear ducts remained dry; although some scenes do pack a decent punch – particularly those between the young Lovell and his fairly monstrous father – the resolution becomes too treacly for me (part of the problem is the string-heavy, romantic score, which Kuenne also composed). It’s ultimately closer to It’s a Wonderful Life than Memento, but I don’t doubt that’s completely what Kuenne was aiming for. I’m also sure that plenty of people will love it dearly, and that’s absolutely fair enough.