Thursday 22 January 2015

The Horizon Project (2013)

Director: Scott Belyea
Stars: Rob Ryan, Tennyson D'Onofrio, Cameron White, Jordy Wiens and Travis Fowler
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Like The Escape, this feels very much like a pitch for a feature and I could have sworn that I heard that it was aimed at being one, even if there's no current suggestion to that effect on the film's website. Unlike The Escape, though, it's a long pitch, which establishes itself slowly over 26 minutes through the benefit of all the things we expect from fully fledged features: multiple sets and props, an abundance of extras, professional special effects and matte paintings, the works. However, while The Escape felt like a trailer, The Horizon Project feels like the first act. If this is ever expanded into a feature, this could play, almost untouched, as the first 26 minutes, taking us up to the point where we can move up to the next level of story and be introduced to the main supporting characters. The lead we already have: it's an unnamed boy played by Tennyson D'Onofrio, who is set up as worthy of note very quickly, much more so than his dad, who accompanies him into the script.

We're in the future where civilisation has been mostly destroyed by what the synopsis calls a 'biological pandemic' and the Horizon Corporation is 'spearheading the global rebuild.' Malnourished survivors are eager for the help of an organisation with means and a host of them are queuing up to be checked over as the film begins, even though those confirmed to be infected are immediately disposed of in decisive fashion. The flamethrowers surely aren't just for their belongings. Of course, our protagonist appears to be special, or he wouldn't be our protagonist; there's something going on inside his body that is of note to the company and we watch him collected, disinfected, injected, clothed and shipped on out to Horizon City, 'a community for survivors' where 'the future is safe.' This section is the setup for the setup, so it's a decent length and would fit much better as the introduction to a feature than as half of a short film; from the perspective of a short film, it runs far too long and steals running time from where things will go.
And that's how I saw this film. Whether it's aimed to be a feature or not, it feels like the beginning of one, so the end is rather unwelcome. Of course, the flipside of that thought is that the crew must have done a great job of drawing us in for us to feel that way when the end credits roll. I say the crew rather than the cast, not to belittle the achievements of those on screen but because nobody stands out visually for any special attention. D'Onofrio is certainly good as the boy at the heart of the film, but this short is his setup not his moment in the spotlight. He's about to come into his own when it all stops and our imaginations have to continue on the story instead. Others, like his father, the driver of the bus to Horizon City or the doctor who pops up a few times as a future character of note, all do good work too but are either quickly removed from the story or will become more important later. Everything we see leaves us to feel that it's about to get real when it runs out of time.

Forcing myself to see what's actually in this film and not what would follow it in an imaginary feature, I'm impressed with what was accomplished. That's partly because it transforms a post-apocalyptic story into a dystopian future with an ambiguous corporate hero/villain and a single child who might just save us all, thus scoring highly at sci-fi concept bingo, but partly because of how it came together. This isn't merely a short film, it's also a hands on course in filmmaking. Director Scott Belyea and cinematographer Scooter Corkle teach the Youth Filmmaking Challenge at the Reel Shorts Festival in Grande Prairie, Alberta. This is an extension of that program, taking novices on location with a half dozen experienced professionals and all the equipment they need, to learn by immersion over a fortnight as they make a short film, this one. I have respect both for the goals of that project and what they achieved. Maybe the next year's class will shoot the next third of the story. It'll be interesting to see what the future will bring.

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