Tuesday 26 October 2010

Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement (2010)

Director: Jesse Griffith
Stars: Ronny Cox, Hellena Taylor and Karl Champley
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

Bookends for a set of science fiction shorts at IHSFF, Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement is worthy of comparison with Lines in the Sand: Ties in almost every way. They have much in common on the face of it. Both are short military science fiction films carved out of a larger whole, Lines in the Sand a feature in progress and Cockpit just a feature length script at this time. Both were shot entirely on greenscreen, with backgrounds added in through the magic of CGI. Both are products of a single man with a vision, taking not just standard writer/director roles but others too. Yet the differences in what reached the screen couldn't be more apparent. Justin Golightly's short is a set of brush strokes from a bigger picture while Jesse Griffith's is a perfectly formed chapter of a longer story. Golightly's looks like sparse machinima while Griffith's is professional grade, both in effects work and in the casting of stars of the magnitude of Ronny Cox.

It's 2013 and we're fighting an intergalactic war: humans vs Tarceds. The UES Navy is holding the aliens back at the edge of the galaxy, but it's a difficult task, made more difficult by the fact that the Tarceds have the annoying talent of controlling minds. As the film's website states: 'To bomb them from afar is to win. To see them is to fall under their control.' And so a logic has been designed to avoid disaster. The rule of engagement of the title is that 'if you make contact, you eject' because it's better to lose one man than an entire starcraft carrier, or even an entire world. To ensure that this rule of engagement is followed to the letter, government agents outside the military chain of command are dispatched to the starcraft carriers, literally paid not to care. This sets up whole new dynamics for a script to build upon: constant paranoia, a reevaluation of the concept of trust, conflict between the military and those who are effectively overseeing them.

Griffith does it well, neatly referencing The Twilight Zone to invoke paranoia and suspicion in a story about Lt Cmdr Jayson McDaniels, a pilot codenamed Outback, who arrives home from a bombing mission in suspicious circumstances. He has less than 1% air remaining, his wingman is dead and he needs to land quick, but protocol has to be followed and that means time. What the reality of Outback's situation is we can't be sure, because Griffith shows us both sides in such a way that we have to decide. Of course we don't think we have enough information to decide, as there's a man's life at stake, a trusted combat veteran at that, but the whole point is that we do. In this situation, all that matters is that there's doubt, pure and simple. This would be another reason for the rule of engagement, not just to remove a threat but to remove a need for human beings to make such tough decisions about their own men.
Karl Champley is excellent as Outback. He's only an occasional actor but he's used to working in front of cameras because he's a frequent host of or guest on DIY TV shows. For a twelve minute short he gets a peach of a character to flesh out, running the gamut from trustworthy navy pilot through acute paranoia sufferer to potentially compromised enemy agent. Ronny Cox's role as the captain of the starcraft carrier he's flying back to is simpler but just as fraught with emotion. He's has to be 100% sure that his man is telling the truth before he can let him land and he only has a few minutes to work with. The stress inherent in his position is immense and I hope these captains have short tours of duty in the full length script or they'd turn into Gen Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove. Cox is a hugely versatile actor, well known since his early banjo picking role as Drew in Deliverance, but he keeps adding new nuances to his portfolio, even in shorts like this.

That leaves Hellena Taylor as the government agent who has to step in with a tough decision. Best known for her voice work in video games, she has the least of the three parts in screen time and emotional depth but perhaps the most important in the context of the story. And here I can't help but wonder what that larger story is, the full feature length script that Griffith has collected a number of award nominations for. It isn't viable to base an opinion on a feature from only a twelve minute chapter, however tempting it might seem, but this one is so solid that I'm really intrigued as to what other webs he's woven around this initial setup. Given the quality of this, I would hope that he wouldn't have too much trouble getting funding for a full length feature and we can see a serious science fiction film that works on both story and effects fronts. Hollywood doesn't have anything against story, it just doesn't care about it. This could be a real treat.


DACKERS said...

This is a brilliant (and accurate) review of a brilliant film. I brought a date to a screening in Hollywood recently, and then insisted we stay for a second showing! Hopefully, someone will have the good sense to finance the feature because it is likely to turn their cents into many dollars!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dackers,
Hey would you mind going onto youtube and leaving a comment under the trailer? I've got 10,000 hit so far. In order to get the studios attention, I'll need a lot more, but it's a good start. Just search cockpit alien demon and the trailer should pop up and hopefully you'll be seeing the "Cockpit" feature at the International Horror & Sci Fi contest in a couple of years. And spread the word