Saturday 29 June 2013

Ontogenesis (2012)

Director: Joanna Ellenbeck
Stars: Joanna Ellenbeck and Patrick Kilpatrick
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Perhaps the best way to highlight how consistently good the selections for the Sci-Fi Shorts A set at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival were this year is to point out that Ontogenesis is probably the worst of them. It's far from a bad film; in fact I've seen sets of sci-fi short films where this would have been the best, but it just didn't spark for me, playing a little on the wrong side of the simple vs deep conflict. Otherwise it's a promising piece, with decent actors in front of the camera, competent crew behind it and a thoughtful idea underpinning it all. It isn't as pretentious as the title would suggest, though it neglects, perhaps deliberately, to tell us what ontogenesis actually means. The dictionary says that ontogeny or ontogenesis is 'the origin and development of an individual organism from embryo to adult.' The poster puts it more simply: 'There is no end. Only a new beginning.' The broad sweep of the film applies this to our entire species.

Within that stunningly broad framework, we get little pictures to focus on. Joanna Ellenback, who also wrote, produced and directed, plays Aria, who has survived the end of the world by the time the film begins. What apocalyptic event triggered it is never mentioned, but she's part of a small band of survivors eking out their existence as best they can given the circumstances, struggling against similarly wary bands of survivors in the process. When Aria returns alone from a vaguely outlined mission, perhaps to parlay with one of these bands, she's confronted angrily by Nathan, the apparent leader of hers. What happened to everyone else, he asks? How come she survived? And when she tells him what really happened, he doesn't believe her in the slightest. If what she says is true, why was the she the one let in on the secret? Why not him, the powerful leader who does so much to keep his people alive?

I like the way that Ontogenesis attempts to explore such a broad concept with such a small story, clearly one of many such stories ongoing on this world at this time. Ellenbeck proves capable as Aria, really the leading lady though she's lost in the noise as the picture starts to incorporate wild and beautiful footage from NASA's Hubble telescope website, directed by Oli Usher. Contrasted with the majesty of creation in the form of an exoplanet orbiting Fomalhaut and a space artist's impressions of a vampire star, people we've just met fade from our memories as if they weren't ever there to begin with. Patrick Kilpatrick, a massively experienced actor who has appeared on what might just be every dramatic TV show of the last decade and a bit, makes more of his brief appearance as Nathan, endowing his character with a surprising amount of depth given how long he doesn't get to do it, but similarly, once the space footage takes over, he's lost too.

I'd like to have liked this film more, but while it has a great story wanting to come out, Ellenbeck and her co-writer Joseph Ruggieri can't seem to find a way to phrase it. Instead we're given some good scenes but little to tie them together. The impressionistic bundling of realistic scenes is not particularly successful, though the impressionistic bundling of impressionistic scenes is far better, in a sort of intergalactic Koyaanisqatsi sort of way. Perhaps appropriately, given where the story takes us, it felt like the film had two completely different approaches that were pulling each other apart. Had Ellenbeck chosen either of those, the result would probably have worked better than choosing both of them within a mere nine minute running time. That was only fitting if her goal was to demonstrate how jarring the events she recounts would be, but that isn't the best way to entertain an audience. Ontogenesis is a capable film but it should have been much more.

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