The Short Film C 299,792 km/s is Old School Sci-Fi at Its Finest
In the interests of full disclosure: I donated to C 299,792 km/s's Kickstarter campaign, and asked my fellow Pajibans to do the same, about one year ago. I don't personally know writer/director/producer Derek Van Gorder or writer/producer Otto Stockmeier from Adam and Steve, but I do know what I like. The manual, analogue effects of pre-CGI science fiction filmmaking -- from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner to Moon -- is right up my alley. Suffice to say, I've been anxiously awaiting this project's release for a chance to see something both old fashioned and new, like a kid on Christmas Eve who's already taken a peek and just wants to play with his toys. Based on the original trailer, I was already sold on the practical effects and the stripped down style of filmmaking Van Gorder and Stockmeier planned to use. The only worrying part was the performances from the mostly unknown and, in some cases, untested, cast.
Now that it's out, my fear turned out to be unnecessary. The script is pared down to its barest bones in order to get as much information into less than 15 minutes of screen time as possible. As such, nobody has a chance to embarrass themselves, and, indeed, any awkwardness or stiffness on the part of the performers can be chalked up to their characters' confusion and the fact they're all, more or less, grim military officers. But Caroline Winterson as the rebellious Lt. Commander Malleck and, very briefly, David Anderson as Chief Engineer Porter are definite standouts. Everyone else acquits themselves just fine, but I really wanted to know more about Malleck and Porter, the leaders of this spaceship mutiny, and their likely shared history and relationship. Winterson's intensity caught my attention immediately with the first trailer, which is retained in the final short but tempered by an unspoken faith that she's doing the right thing, and an apparent belief that her crew will see that in time. Meanwhile, Anderson uses every second of his short onscreen presence to breathe humor and life into a character that could have easily been nothing more than exposition dump.
The plot, for those who don't remember the trailers and didn't click on any of the above links, revolves around Commander Malleck's decision to abandon Earth and continue (or, more likely, restart) humanity on a faraway planet lightyears away from home. There's enough seemingly extraneous, ship-to-ship dialogue to pick up that implies any existential problems on Earth are the fault of mankind and, based on the actions of Malleck, it appears those problems aren't likely to be fixed anytime soon. So she and some of her crew on the Kestros IV mutiny. But Malleck herself says she isn't political. This is a mission, full stop, to save humanity. Not Earth or even her fellow humans in perpetual war with each other, but the species. The conceit of the short, as evidenced by the title, is that even at light speed those crew members onboard Kestros probably won't see their final destination, but their children's children (hopefully) will.
Much of this detail is explained via a faux documentary in the vein of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," called "Beyond the Infinite." The short even begins with one of Neil de Grasse Tyson's, Sagan's heir apparent, favorite ideas: that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on our planet. "Beyond" is hosted by Dr. Harold Newman (played by Damien Langman), and he is exactly what you would want and expect from a stuffy, yet idealistic astrophysicist in the 1970s or 80s. If you've ever watched "Cosmos" -- or Discovery's "The Universe" or History's "How the Universe Works" - then most of what Dr. Newman explicates will sound very familiar. But it's the interweaving of the documentary into the narrative that shades and clarifies the goals and reasons behind Malleck's Mutiny. I'd love to have seen more direct character motivations, especially the tipping point that makes her act when she does, but that can be forgiven for a short and Dr. Newman's talking head and narration does the job. My favorite was the cough and you'll miss it clue to the film's ending, about humanity's proclivity of turning "tools into weapons." Still, if there was ever a role that needed room to expand in a feature length film starring Helen Mirren, it's Commander Malleck.
The level of period detail in "Beyond the Infinite," including film aspect ratios and print scratches, that opens and closes the short film, belies the filmmakers' affection for their project and the sci-fi flicks of their (and my) youth. I anticipated being blown away by the non-digital effects, which will age beautifully, but I was equally impressed by all of the technical aspects on display. The sound design, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the cinematography, and the awesome 80s-like synth pop soundtrack all add up to a retro experience that, while clearly inspired by Kubrick and Scott, is actually more akin to another recent throwback piece, Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow. That movie made very little sense in the entirety of its 110 minutes, a problem C definitely doesn't have, but the stark blues and reds in nearly every frame were increasingly beautiful as it wore on and the same is true here. It's an unusual, if not unwelcome, lighting scheme for a whole movie but it works contextually for a military vessel amidst a red alert. That it evokes the color patterns of the Mass Effect series did not go unappreciated.
1,100 words is probably enough for a movie that only runs 14:45 (including credits), and perhaps too much still. But C 299,792 km/s (or, C: The Movie if you're into that whole brevity thing) is something I've ached to see finished and I was far from disappointed. In point of fact, I was pleasantly surprised by just about everything. If you're like me, you'll watch this short a half-dozen times and still want more. If you're not, you could do a whole lot worse with your time. And if a Kickstarter campaign for the full-length version of this ever happens, I will gladly donate and board that ship to Van Gorder's and Stockmeier's vision of the future. Until, then, we'll always have Vimeo.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. If he had the opportunity to travel hundreds of light years and be a first generation space colonist, he wouldn't hesitate.