The longest running genre fest in the US, the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival (Boston SciFi for short) returned for its 48th annual event in Somerville, MA last week.
I was only able to attend one of the five days, but I managed to squeeze in four features plus two panels. Here’s what I saw at this year’s Boston Science Fiction Film Festival.
The Warm Season
Boston SciFi hosted the world premiere of The Warm Season, a character-driven sci-fi drama with shades of Starman. As a young girl, Clive (Carie Kawa) encountered Mann (Michael Esparza), an alien in human disguise, who gave her a glowing rock before being captured by government agents. 25 years later in 1992, an escaped Mann returns to Clive’s failing motel to retrieve the “fail-safe” in order to return to his planet. Between the weather patterns and the government closing in, they only have three days to get him home.
The Warm Season succeeds because writer Adam Seidel and director Janet Grillo craft an intriguing concept with authentic characters in a world that feels lived in. While Mann serves as a more than adequate MacGuffin, at the story’s heart is Clive’s journey toward self-actualization.
Kawa and Esparza are equally affecting counterparts, with the former’s raw performance balanced by the latter’s candor. Esparza speaks in a stilted speech pattern with the occasional ’90s slang phrase thrown in. The supporting performances are also strong, with Gregory Jbara (Blue Bloods) frequently stealing scenes as a gregarious rogue agent aiding Mann’s escape.
High concept on a low budget, The Bystanders is an British sci-fi comedy that channels the scrappy energy of a young, Spaced-era Edgar Wright with the ambition of Doctor Who. Like guardian angels of sorts, bystanders are former humans turned invisible immortals that watch over their human subjects. Their objective is to clandestinely steer their subjects’ lives for the better, but as the movie shows, their meddling can have dire consequences.
Frank (comedian Seann Walsh) has been duly appointed to recruit former child prodigy Peter (Scott Haran) as the latest bystander. While the rookie Peter ambitiously lobbies to be named Bystander of the Year, Frank does not take his position seriously. Their relationship becomes increasingly strained when they decide to switch subjects – Peter is first assigned to lowly record label intern Sarah (Georgia Mabel Clarke), while Frank is frustrated by slacker Luke (Andi Jashy) – and again when an unexpected romance blossoms between the subjects.
The Bystanders is a bit rough around the edges, but writer-director Gabriel Foster Prior admirably pushes beyond budgetary limitations to create an original feature debut. Further illustrating the divide between dimensions, the picture alternates between black and white from the human point of view and color from a bystander’s POV. The humor ranges from quirky to dry while commenting on the mundanities of life, bureaucracy, and fate vs. free will.
The Antares Paradox
Like The Guilty meets The Vast of Night, The Antares Paradox (known in its native Spanish as La paradoja de Antares) is a contained sci-fi drama thriller from Spain. It’s frustratingly close to being truly remarkable, only to be hobbled by a limp finale. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why it’s been a favorite on the festival circuit, earning a world premiere at Fantastic Fest and a European premiere at Sitges.
As a SETI scientist searching for alien life, Alexandra (Andrea Trepat) has been ridiculed by everyone from strangers on the internet to colleagues and even family. With her program on the verge of being shut down, a super storm rolling in, and her father dying in the hospital, Alexandra may have finally found proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. Racing against a ticking clock, she has to risk it all in order to verify the signal via strict protocol.
Despite being confined entirely in an observatory’s research lab, writer-director-cinematographer Luis Tinoco (his feature debut after two decades in visual effects) never allows for a dull moment. The tight script continually finds new ways to raise the stakes and ratchet tension, while the high production values and clever camerawork keep the visuals interesting. Trepat is the only actor on screen, save for video calls, and she gives a phenomenal performance that oozes vulnerability and determination. While it loses steam in the melodramatic third act, Tinoco and Trepat are both talents to watch in the future.
A Japanese cousin to The Fabelmans, Single8 is a love letter to the impact of cinema and the wonder of filmmaking. Brazenly starting with a parody of Star Wars‘ iconic opening crawl, writer-director Kazuya Konaka (Ultraman: The Next) delivers a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale based on his own early cinematic explorations. Set in 1978, it’s nostalgic yet timeless.
Inspired by Star Wars, high school senior Hiroshi (Yu Uemura) picks up a Single-8 camera in the hopes of making his own sci-fi epic. With the help of his friends and classmates – including casting his crush (Akari Takaishi) as the heroine – Hiroshi conceives the earnest Time Reverse for their school-wide festival. Along the way he learns about the trials and tribulations not only of filmmaking but of growing up.
Clocking in just shy of two hours, Single8 is a tad overlong. The pacing is obstructed by showing the students’ film in full at the finale; it would have been better served in intermittent glimpses throughout the movie to leave the audience wanting more, which Be Kind Rewind did so effectively. That said, its heart is ample enough to overlook the shortcomings, making this the highlight of the festival for me. As an added bit of fun, the end credits feature clips from Konaka’s own early productions that inspired the film, a la The Goldbergs.
Duwayne Dunham Panel
A panel with editor/filmmaker Duwayne Dunham was billed as a “master class,” and it was just that; inspiring insight from an accomplished industry veteran who has collaborated with some of the biggest names in cinema. He’s best known for editing the likes of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks, in addition to directing such projects as Homeward Bound, Little Giants, Halloweentown, and episodes of Twin Peaks and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Having worked in features, episodic TV, and TV movies — not to mention having both edited and directed for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and David Lynch — Dunham shared his perspectives on storytelling regardless of medium or genre. I could have listened to his stories from the trenches — like being the first person to screen test the original Boba Fett armor, transitioning from editing the Twin Peaks pilot to directing the first episode, and helping Spielberg turn a 30-second McDonald’s ad into Little Giants — all day.
Dunham recounted the advice bestowed upon him by his successful mentors before his first directing gig. Lucas told him to never work with someone who just won an Academy Award and to throw out the script when you edit. Francis Ford Coppola pragmatically advised him to wear comfortable shoes. Lynch wryly said, “When the car comes to pick you up in the morning, get in. When it gets to set, get out.”
Dunham emphasized never underestimating the power of the editing room, as that is where the story is fully realized. Editing, he said, comes naturally to him. “Directing is hard work. Writing is even harder. That’s why I try to avoid it,” he noted with a chuckle. His latest effort, a drama that he wrote, directed, and edited titled The Happy Worker, is currently stuck in distribution limbo with hopes of being released later this year.
The Fabricators Panel
The Fabricators was a two-part panel with prop masters/fabricators who have worked on many of the most successful and beloved properties of the last 25 years: Tamara Carlson Woodard (The Mandalorian, Avengers: Endgame), Jason Kaufman (Starship Troopers, Star Trek), Brad Elliott (Avatar: The Way of Water, Obi-Wan), and Giang Pham (Venom, Jurassic World).
Unlike most panels, in which a subject is interviewed by a host they don’t know, Pham served as the moderator. Not only was she intimately familiar with the other panelists’ work, all of their paths have crossed on various projects, so there was a palpable camaraderie on stage. They broke down the props department’s symbiotic relationship with visual effects, stunts, wardrobe, and cast to ensure the best possible results for a film.
Star Wars was a frequent point of conversation, as all four panelists have experience working in a galaxy far, far away. They addressed what Pham referred to as the “fanboy factor,” in which fans want something new but don’t want anything to change. As such, they are tasked with respecting the legacy canon while pushing forward with their artistry.
Boston SciFi also featured screenings of Doctor Who Am I, UFO Club, Beyond Tomorrow, It’s Quieter in the Twilight, Breaking Infinity, The Cold Dead Look In Your Eyes, The Mind Thief, Everyone Will Burn, and Isaac Asimov: A Message to the Future; several short film blocks; a panel with animation editors Joe Elwood and Nate Cormier; Asimov’s Robots, an experimental Clue-like mystery game; and The Time Traveler’s Ball celebrating 60 years of Doctor Who.
The festival came to a close with its legendary 24-hour sci-fi marathon. This year included celluloid screenings of Back to the Future Part II (on 70mm), Alien, Escape from Planet of the Apes, Stargate, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, UFOria, and Future Kill, plus digital showings of the original Godzilla, Total Recall, Bill & Ted Face the Music, After Yang, and more.