Tuesday 18 March 2014

Earthship (2010)

Director: David K Wilson
Stars: Brian Leahy, Genia Michaela, Gavin McClure and James Loren
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.
As someone who has read quite a lot about earthships and other sustainable housing projects and one day plans to live in one, I was overjoyed to see a short science fiction film that revolves so much about the concept that it provides the title of the film. It has a decent story too, albeit a relatively simple one that follows an obvious creation arc. When faced with an earthship, a creative soul will want to conjure up a story; what story would apply to a residence so self-sufficient that its occupants could live there in comfort indefinitely? Well, a post apocalyptic story, naturally, which is precisely what we get, one which director David K Wilson wrote cleverly enough to be thoroughly believable without ever requiring what was surely a low initial budget to swell into something more substantial. This was his thesis film at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts and it worked well enough to make its way to at least 32 film festivals, including the 2011 International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival.

Wilson places us into a post-apocalyptic Canada, supposedly in the desert outside what remains of the city of Vancouver ('Couver here), though it was shot in and around the Phoenix House in the Earthship Biotecture Community in Taos, NM. There's plenty of time for global devastation to have arrived, given that we're at least as far out as the year 2047, which is marked on Mary Whitmore's gravestone as the date when she left her family without a female presence. No wonder tensions are running high! Other than that, they're doing pretty well, at least compared to the rest of the world. The Whitmores shifted over to the earthship after civilisation fell and survived there for twenty years; living off the grid might be enticing today, but it's even more enticing when there's no longer a grid. They grow their own food, capture and recycle their water, without ever needing to venture back to what remains of the city for anything at all. Theoretically they could stay in their self-sufficient earthship forever.
One obvious catch is that three men do not a new civilisation make, at least not without outside help, but that isn't where this film begins; instead the triggers here come from not knowing. Allan and Mary Whitmore had two sons, and the younger, Dax, has never experienced civilisation. He's young enough to have spent his entire life in this earthship, isolated from everything and everyone, and he's burning to go out and see the world, or at least what's left of it. Needless to say, this causes conflict, especially with his elder brother Brian, and they're fighting about doing just that when the plot stumbles over the horizon and collapses in the desert just ahead of them. It's another human being, perhaps the first Dax has ever seen, hidden from view by a black airtight suit marked Belial Corp. No wonder he runs to help, as Brian holds back with caution, and thus the brotherly conflict continues on throughout. Dax is ever fearless, with no real experience to draw from, while Brian remembers the end of the world.

It's no spoiler to point out that this new arrival is a woman, as you wouldn't expect any different. She's Isis, played by Genia Michaela, and she's very good at providing believable reactions to waking inside the Whitmores' comfortable earthship after decades of dubious post-apocalyptic survival. This is a new world to her, one in which Dax reads Shakespeare and the Whitmores stargaze with telescopes, plural. What's more, they have a shower, with running water, no less. Isis cries as it cascades down onto her. To be fair, Michaela owns the film mostly because she's the wide eyed guest who gets scenes like this, as Brian Leahy does well otherwise as the inquisitive and carefree Dax. Gavin McClure isn't allowed to do much as Brian except bitch at his brother, so it's no great slight that he fades quickly. James Loren overplayed Allan consistently in his emotional scenes, leaving the film to the youngsters and the story to the ending that some clever twists only hint won't show up eventually.

It's a cliché that reviewers always ask for good short films to be extended into features, but Earthship could certainly have done with more length, if not quite that much. Wilson did a lot here with not a lot and I'd be interested in where he could have taken his concept. The earthship is such a great location for a science fiction film, rather like an earthbound version of the spaceship in Silent Running, but any overt comparisons to that film would need to tie to its isolation, which Wilson refuses to go for. Rather he builds up its isolation as a temporary state of affairs and sets his story at the point where that ends. The Whitmores have been living in a protective bubble, which Isis pops as she arrives, so becoming a catalyst for change. Wilson's story therefore becomes a lost world story in reverse, where the roaming savages discover a little pocket of civilisation. Unfortunately little of this potential depth can be hinted at in eighteen minutes, making the credits somewhat like an alarm clock ending a promising dream.

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