Tuesday 19 August 2014

SNAFU (2010)

Director: Julian Caldow
Stars: Eric Loren, Tom Sangster and Marshall Griffin
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.
I enjoyed SNAFU a lot, though it didn't take me long to figure out where it was going. That I continued to enjoy it, even after figuring out where it was going, says quite a lot because the twist isn't the be all and end all to the movie. There's a lot more here, especially on the visual front, where the effects look great but how they're woven into the film is even more important. For instance, the short opens with a serene shot of the majesty of creation, a moon slowly orbiting a planet, then the peace of the universe is raped by the violence of a spacecraft going down hard because an unnamed soldier is about to crash onto an alien world. That shot highlights the playfulness, appropriately as it turns out, that keeps a particularly dark story engaging, especially as it could easily have been rendered much darker still. It was intriguing to revisit it, as I'd forgotten the film over three years but its ideas had stayed with me. When I caught up with Edge of Tomorrow, I saw SNAFU, even though there were other ways to read it.

The soldier survives, apparently intact except for his memory. As he walks out of the mist on the surface, he narrates to us how he can't remember anything from before the crash: not his name, not his rank, not his reason for being there. He doesn't even know what the IPMC on his insignia stands for. He appears to be lucid now, with one driving thought that comes out of the haze: get to zone four. So off he goes, as a soldier is trained to do his duty, after all, whatever the circumstances. He discovers that he's not alone when he leaps into a foxhole to avoid some hover-tanks out on patrol, but the soldier there dressed in a similar uniform is a corpse with no face. He keeps on towards the destroyed city in the distance, whose roadsigns and construction appear very Earthlike, if the heavenly bodies in the sky tell us otherwise. He tracks down other soldiers, but the only one on his side is quickly killed by men from the other. An IPMC cylinder lands in the street, so he takes down a sniper nest and heads over to see what's in it.

And, after finding that it's a trap, he's shot dead by a laser installation that emerges from the ground. So much for our sole protagonist. But then, we start again. He wakes up out in the desert and heads back to town. 'It's a stuck record,' he narrates, 'and I don't think I like the groove.' If we weren't paying attention to all the weirdness that was going down before, we can't fail to do so now. He'd watched as the soldier was killed, but a blink later they were all gone. One of the enemies, who dies in front of him, apparently can't remember anything before the crash either, and he has a great line of dialogue, albeit one hijacked from RoboCop. 'I killed you,' he says. There are a few ways that this can go, as déjà vu shows up and the soldier questions his environment and his connection to it, but I was with the right one all the way. After a fresh viewing, that may well be because I once wrote a short story that had major similarities to where it takes us after the initial twist is revealed. If so, this may play a little more surprising for you.
SNAFU was a team effort, especially on the visual side, but the man behind it is clearly Julian Caldow, the writer, producer and director. He also scored the short, which hat may be one of the influences from John Carpenter that he cites, Sergio Leone being the other. Certainly the end credits feel very much like what Carpenter might have conjured up, not only because of the music but because of the choice of font, even its colour. The end of the film is reminiscent of Carpenter too, as is the use of a narration that feels much more hardboiled detective than standard science fiction. The coarse acting of Eric Loren fits too, though mostly through the archetypal action approach rather than through channelling any particular Carpenter actor; he isn't trying to be Kurt Russell, for instance, not really. Clearly the sequel, if Caldow ever makes one, would move totally into Carpenter territory, but that's the sequel. I didn't see a lot of Leone though, maybe the lack of actors in detailed landscapes being the closest, but even then the vision was different.

Given the strong visual aesthetic, which is consistently fantastic for a film which runs a short 27 minutes, it's not surprising to discover Caldow's background. He debuted here as a writer, producer and director, possibly as a composer too, but he has a major history in cinematic art, whether that be storyboarding, creature design or concept illustration. He started as a draughtsman on Tim Burton's Batman, and is still in the business, with films as prominent as Gravity, Prometheus and X-Men: First Class on his resume, as well as Game of Thrones for television. With such a visual background, I was more surprised to find that his script stands up well within the world he creates here. The only thing missing is population, as more enemies would have made a lot of sense. Maybe Marshall Griffin could only bring life to so many of the Bluehawk Horde within the shooting schedule, but extras are easy to come by. At the end of the day, it's a well rounded piece from a man who really should find time to make another short film of his own.

SNAFU can be watched online for free at Vimeo.

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