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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Triple Hit (2009)

Director: Huw Bowen
Stars: Abigail Tarttelin, Alan Convy, Damian Hayes, Roger Harding, Tony Holmes, Stephen Steinhaus and Amelia Tyler
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Triple Hit is one of those movies that epitomises how hard it is for indie film to get really noticed. Better by far than most indie features, especially on technical grounds, it impressed on the festival circuit and gained a good deal of attention. Unfortunately that meant that it got to duke it out with the big boys in the real world, where many viewers, used to the sort of slick product that the big studios lavish tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars onto, found it lacking. Most criticism was hurled at the quality of the acting, which is understandable. There are no big stars here for a start, the lead actors being relatively inexperienced, but four of them also accepted a rather ambitious challenge. Not only are they tasked with playing a lead role, but they're tasked with playing three versions of those lead roles within three different parallel universes. They had to appear enough alike to be recognisable but different enough to be easily delineated when the story starts throwing them together. Their success was variable.

It begins well, with a catchy hook and a notably energetic set of credits. 'How did it start?' a girl is asked during an interview on Alpha Station about 'recent disturbances in parallel universes'. 'With me being a genius,' she replies. Already it feels like a British sci-fi television show, with a limited budget but a lot of imagination, and that remains a fair description throughout. Then the script, by Paul Hardy and director Huw Bowen, knuckles down and attempts to introduce us to three different versions of four fundamental characters without confusing us to death. They do better than the actors do, conjuring up a trio of easily delineated parallel universes, each apparently next to each other in the dimensional stack. 7829-097 is the United Kingdom, either the one in our world or something believably close to it. However, next door in 7829-098, it's the UN Administrative Division, Western Europe, far more advanced than us. One step further into 7829-099, it's the People's Republic of Great Britain, a muted Soviet state.

As we might expect, each of these characters is shaped by their environments. The most important is the girl being interviewed at the beginning, who is perhaps deliberately younger than we would expect a genius to be. In 097 she's Dr Rebecca Hunter, a rough and ready quantum physicist with a natural air and character enough for us to buy into that genius status. That isn't on show in 098, where she's Prof Sarah Hunter-Gibson, played capably but without any real authority. She feels far more like a project manager who knows how to deliver but has no real knowledge to go any deeper. In 099, where she's Science Director Anastasia Hunter, she ought to be as callous as she is intelligent, but she comes over more as prissy and that deflates her power somewhat. The actor is Abigail Tartellin, making her lead debut in a feature, after a supporting role in The Butterfly Tattoo and the other sort of parts that show up early in an actor's career. She's promising but this complexity was beyond her at this point.
In each of these universes, she's running experiments in quantum tunnelling using a machine known as Q. In 097, the quirky, slapdash version of modern Britain, it's clearly under the radar, as Dr Hunter is her own test subject, using black market pharmaceuticals and an illegal botnet. In 098, Prof Hunter-Gibson is demonstrating the Casimir Effect that allows parallel universes to interact to a university class using overtly advanced technology; here, the Q unit is an unseen biological supercomputer with a melodious female voice. Meanwhile in 099, Science Director Hunter is running a state-sanctioned biocomputer by hooking up human livestock. As you can imagine, these worlds are highly delineated. 097 is believably natural with kludged together tech and relaxed, down to earth characters, while 098 is clean, slick and polite and overlaid with CGI. 099 is shot in muted colours that approach black and white, with radation exclusion zones, severe uniforms, mutations, famines, statues, commissars, the cold war era works.

Each of these universes shares a few other key players. Closest in each is the man who assists the lead and built the respective Q machines. He's Matt, Matthew and Mateus, played by Damian Hayes, the son of the much loved Melvyn Hayes, of It Ain't Half Hot Mum fame. While Tarttelin is more obvious and has a particularly strong presence in 097, Hayes remains more consistent across the parallel universes. His delineation appears to be through a moral compass; his versions are good, evil and bland, depending on the universe, but he's always capable and clearly ready to be more important than he seems. He's also the most overtly seventies Doctor Who character. Also present is Dave, David and Dmitri, played by Alan Convy, who is the black market dealer in 097, the husband (visible by video link from his space station, no less) in 098 and the naysaying pharmacologist in 099. Behind them all is Theodore, Theo and Fyodor, the establishment figure in each universe, played reliably by Roger Harding.

That's a lot of setup for a feature and we surely have to pay attention or something will slip past us and confuse us later. Of course, there's more than that to come, as Bowen and Hardy start to play with the framework they've built and have these characters interact outside their own universe. When I first saw Triple Hit, at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, some of it felt highly reminiscent of where the TV show Fringe was starting to go. However, while it most closely resembles the third season of Fringe, it actually both predates it and goes a step further, adding a third parallel universe to the mix; Fringe worked with only a pair of them. Some of the interactions between characters felt similar, as did the collisions between universes, especially with icons shifting from one to another, like the vast statue of Stalin or the airships suddenly appearing in the recognisable United Kingdom. Obviously, this picture didn't have the luxury of a 22 episode season to flesh out its ideas, just the usual hour and a half.
While Triple Hit predates the similar seasons of Fringe, it does make a few deliberate nods to classic sci-fi television; my favourite was when Dr Hunter meets Science Director Hunter in 099, at a rather tense moment, immediately tries for the old two Kirks routine and fails utterly. This is appropriate, because the whole film feels like it would fit better on television than in a movie theatre, especially with some of where it decides to go towards the end. I think of the film rather like a well written six episode story of the classic Doctor Who, that plays with scientific concepts in a clever way but nonetheless manages to wrap itself up suspiciously quickly and, in doing so, transforms a new character into a new companion. Of course, there's no Doctor here, his role taken by a little and large double act of men in black by the names of Officers Slip and Hand, effectively parallel universe cops, tasked with retrieving Dr Hunter for interdimensional trespassing and cleaning up the mess she's inadvertently caused.

Slip and Hand are engaging characters, though they're hilariously not played by the expected jobbing actors who usually filled such quintessentially seventies sci-fi TV roles. Mr Slip is Tony Holmes, who left acting for academia and currently serves as Geographic Information Systems Officer with Warwickshire County Council. I'm glad Bowen talked him back into doing this one. Mr Hand is a bouncer turned poet called Stephen Steinhaus, who fronts the Dr Teeth Big Band and has an MPhil degree in Shakespeare Studies. I adore these backgrounds, which are at once utterly unexpected but perfect for the roles they play. As we find, Alpha Station hires the best from the most unlikely sources, and they get the job done. That they appear as a British TV version of the double act of Bob Hoskins and Derrick O'Connor in Terry Gilliam's Brazil is icing on the cake. I kept wishing that Steinhaus had ignored the dialogue he was given here in the way O'Connor did to mimic his partner's lines instead. That would have been priceless.

How you'll receive Triple Hit is probably going to depend on how you approach it. It's not a blockbuster with $200m and a major studio behind it; it's a story based film that does a lot with a little, elevating it from the usual indie fare and explaining why it's done well on the festival circuit. It doesn't have the sort of awesome effects that improve every summer, but it does capably enough; some are good and some are really good but a few are still notably flat. Unfortunately the final one is the worst, which won't help naysayers to leave the film well. There are minor technical downsides: sound that occasionally echoes a little, a bad wound effect here or a poorly choreographed fight there. A few lines are lost in transitions. I also noticed a few little details that rang untrue this time through; such as why a genius scientist would say something redundant like 'threshold limit' or why a callous science director would look away during an injection, but its story is consistently stronger than what Hollywood tends to conjure up.

Mostly it needed a stronger set of actors than it found. The story is ambitious and notably complex, so needed an insanely talented cast to sell each of the parallel universes and the characters they play in them. It has a talented cast, far more so than some of the reviews I've read might suggest, but they're not experienced enough to meet the challenge fully. This renders the film capable rather than stunning and it needed that extra push to really make a difference. Abigail Tarttelin in particular could be much worse than she is and she really doesn't deserve the flak she's received at IMDb, especially given that her performance as the main lead, the one in parallel universe 097, is by far her strongest, but it's fair to say that she could have been much better too. Really, the same goes for the movie as a whole. It's a refreshing ride through parallel universe shenanigans, story based but fast paced and action oriented. I've seen better, but I've seen a heck of a lot worse and I'd certainly watch it again.

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