Thursday 25 June 2015

Ouroboros (2014)

Director: Alexander Broderick
Stars: Amanda Melby, Nancy Mercurio and Steve Briscoe
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
Ouroboros (at least the one marked VI for 2014 at IMDb, because everyone and their dog are apparently making movies called Ouroboros) is a major release from the Digital Video Program at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, so precisely nobody will be surprised to discover that it looks absolutely gorgeous from the swirling O that immediately appears in the middle of the screen to play its role in the opening credits and then the beginning of the film itself. There’s so much visual effects work, every bit of which looks slick and professional, and it’s so well integrated into everything around it that we actually wonder if Amanda Melby is real or yet another digital creation. She’s playing Dr Faye O’Neill, in a future America of 2035 where the military has partnered with her lab to build Star Trek-style transporters using quantum entanglement technology. Given that the US military has just partnered with companies in the UK and US to build Star Wars-style hoverbikes, I just wonder if 2035 is too safe an estimate. Who knows?

Well, 2035 looks pretty damn good, if this is anything to go by. It isn’t all digital, because the costumes of Nola Yergen are as amazing as ever, but most of it is computer generated. As an IT tech, I tend to despise Hollywood’s attempts to visualise user interfaces, not being knocked out by any cinematic interpretations until an indie short called Restitution in 2013. The students at UAT clearly spent a lot of time thinking out how they wanted to present current hot tech topics like the Internet of Things and instant synchronisation between portable and fixed devices. There’s a lot of handprint authentication here, minor AI and a host of TLAs to go along with the military designations: TBL, QTM, SEC and the like. Digital effects date and these will be no exception, but they look pretty damn fine right now. Unfortunately, while they might drive odd discussions amongst film fans who work in IT, they certainly don’t drive this story. They just sit there and look both awesome and busy while the story tries to steal some focus back and, eventually, fails.
I’ve reviewed a lot of UAT films over the last few years and, while visual effects are always a strong focus, inevitably given that they’re made by a Digital Video Program, there are usually stronger stories to sit in front of them. I’m thinking varied films like Red Sand, Screaming in Silence and Flight of the Melvin, with common ground in having strong stories as well as strong visuals. The story here is a mishmash of tropes that I’m not sure even makes sense in the end. It’s a time travel film, a parallel universe film, a futuristic technology film... and yet it has to wrap itself up in under sixteen minutes. That’s insanely ambitious and, frankly, this needed a lot more time to allow the various themes to evolve naturally. I could see this script being expanded out to feature length and finding substance in explorations of what appears here only as wild dialogue (like ‘It’s an Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Bridge!’), especially as even lines that outrageous are used appropriately rather than as random scientific gibberish, but it just doesn’t have that luxury.

If, in a parallel universe, this might have become a deep and scientifically accurate feature, it’s actually a surface scratching short that seems to be constructed entirely out of Hollywood stock moments, because Hollywood never wants to go deep and scientifically accurate. It just wants to reuse memorable moments like a scientist being confronted by a future version of themselves, or the revelation that one action made the universe split and now the entire timespace continuum is falling in on itself. We get a whole collection of these moments here, none of them explored beyond the usual because of the time constraints. Only a deus ex machina moment, quite literally for a change, goes beyond that and it gives Steve Briscoe some opportunity to act. If this could be viewed as a sixteen minute edit of an imaginary ninety minute feature, the work of Briscoe, Melby and Nancy Mercurio finds some power. Certainly, each of these actors finds a way to do more with their material than it deserves at this length.
Fortunately, there’s more than just visual magic and good acting to recommend Ouroboros, and I’m not just talking about the neat conceit of having the background doctors be called Tennant, Smith and Baker (Tom, I hope, not Colin). Many of the other technical jobs are performed as capably as the visual wizards, just less obviously, from the cinematography of Annie Winn to the sound editing of Gwyneth Christoffel and Nick Francia; Christoffel also edited with Reginald Riley. The casting is top notch too, especially with Nancy Mercurio tasked with playing an older version of Amanda Melby; I honestly wondered on my first viewing if the latter was playing both roles with different make up and I couldn’t quite get that out of my head even once I knew better. So this is the slick and professional sci-fi yarn we’ve come to expect from UAT, just one that’s as hampered by time as is its leading lady. Because of that, the weak point is clearly the script, but maybe it will provide the spur for UAT to stretch itself and produce that first feature!

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