It is perhaps not surprising that, in a world becoming increasingly surreal by the day, science fiction is creeping slowly but surely toward the mainstream. Hard sci-fi TV shows like Black Mirror and Westworld dominate watercooler conversation; Star Wars and Star Trek have both come back with a vengeance (and what are Marvel’s superheroes if not a starter deck of twentieth-century sci-fi tropes?); and, at press time, both The Shape of Water and Get Out have a very good chance of becoming the first science fiction film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Sci-fi has long served as a funhouse-mirror reflection of its times. So what happens when times are plenty warped to begin with?
According to Miriam Olken, filmmaker liaison for the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival, the answer may surprise you. Now entering its forty-third year (making it the longest-running festival of its kind in the country), Boston SciFi will commence this Friday for another ten days of new shorts and features from around the world, before closing with its traditional 24-hour marathon of repertory screenings. Understandably, dystopias are very popular among this year’s offerings, as are stories of surveillance, technological terror, and social media gone awry (as in Framed, a Spanish film about a livestreaming snuff film community making its US premiere as part of the fest’s “SciFright” night on Friday, 2/16). But more striking, Olken says, are the recurring themes of introspection. Take for example Scot Perlman’s Andover which screens this coming Saturday. Set in Andover, Mass, this sci-fi comedy finds a scientist repeatedly trying to clone his late wife, trying in vain to perfect the formula and recapture her essence. “Maybe some people are trying to reflect over and over again in their own minds– ‘What happened?!’” Olken muses. “It’s not denial, per se, but reflection, certainly, and thinking about our choices. And because of science fiction, we can go to time travel, or, like Frankenstein, bring things back to life.”
These themes are also present in Sam Vanivray’s Brute Sanity, screening Monday, 2/12, as part of Boston SciFi’s Locals Night (which, incidentally, we’re pleased to announce will be once again presented by Boston Hassle, and hosted by your author!). Inspired by Donald Hoffman’s Interface Theory of Perception, Brute Sanity tells the story of a brilliant FBI-trained neuropsychologist locked in a battle of wits with her twisted, villainous ex-boss, and while the story hinges on an extradimensional alien artifact, it also focuses more intimately on its protagonist’s struggles with her life choices. “We seem to be living a time when certain, perhaps postmodern, memetic ways to parse our world into pre-packaged versions of reality are running amok,” Varnivray says. “In a grand philosophical sense, although we may not perceive veridical reality, it could be a serious mistake to not commit to objective reality. If you have your facts and I have my opposite facts…well, somebody is wrong there!”
This is not to say that all filmmakers choose to reflect current events. For his latest film, Muse, Boston-born director John Burr deliberately chose to take a step back from topicality, instead drawing inspiration from the Irish legend of the Leannán Sí, a muse which provides its host with artistic inspiration, but also defends their bond against outsiders by any means necessary. In crafting this tale, Burr looked to such atmospheric chillers as Let the Right One In and The Ring. “I wanted to create something character-based, with horror rooted in mystery,” Burr explains, “There’s violence, but it’s a side effect of the story, as opposed to spectacle in itself.” Muse will make its New England premiere at the festival on Saturday, 2/17.
In a broader sense, this year’s festival is also casting an eye toward representation, both within the films (as in Chad Eric Smith’s African-American-driven Rumination) and through a special Women in Film night on Thursday, 2/15. In addition to programming a full evening of shorts and features made by female talent in prominent creative roles, the night will kick off with a panel discussion featuring an array of female directors, producers, and animators. An aspiring filmmaker herself, Olken looks forward to the day that we no longer feel the need to refer to female directors as “female directors,” but simply as “directors.” “We want to include the ‘#MeToo’ aspect of it, but we also want to talk about the celluloid ceiling,” Olken says, “In general, it’s wonderful to share stories about how people are inspired to be creative.”
Of course, all of this is just a part of the festival’s sprawling, ten-day program, which ranges from cockeyed comedy (such as Peter Stray’s hilarious Canaries) to mind-bending animation (the indescribable Space Detective), along with children’s matinees of classics like The Iron Giant and Flight of the Navigator, and a dizzying array of shorts programs (with such gloriously arcane titles as “Jovianic Occultation” and “Illusory Wolf-Rayet”). And, of course, the festivities close with the traditional 24-hour marathon of old and new classics, which has been the heart of the festival for its entire 43-year run. When asked for advice for first-time ‘Thonners, Olken laughed and said, “Take naps when you’re ready. Pick the films. I’ve watched a lot of Marathonners say, ‘Okay, these are the films I absolutely have to be awake for. These are the ones I’m going to get snacks during, or I’m going to go get my lunch and bring it back. These are the ones I’m gonna go fill my coffee mug, so I’m ready for this one. And then these are the ones I’m gonna fall asleep right to.’ The Marathon is always going to kind of keep you on your toes, that’s what I would say.”
The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival opens Friday, February 9, and continues through the 24-hour marathon, which runs from noon on Sunday, 2/18, to Monday, 2/19. For full schedule and ticket information, check out BostonScifi.com. And be sure to stop by for Locals Night on Monday, 2/12, presented and hosted by Boston Hassle!