Cast: Marcus McMahon, Cullum Austin, Rohit Gokani, Mac McDonald, and Victoria Oliver
Director: Chris Reading
80 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Soda DVD Region 2
So that’s it then, we’re all doomed! There’s a teasing 1952 pre-credit sequence, filmed at the Severn Valley Railway, replicating a nationalised BR station with steam locomotives and a friendly neighbourhood bobby furtively nipping from a hip-flask. This is what writer and director Chris Reading considers an ‘Indiana Jones’ lead-in, providing this impressively modest indie movie with a narrative spine. The old guy in the train carriage carefully unwraps a journal he’s been bequeathed, flipping through pages of hieroglyphics, Egyptological diagrams, and Von Daniken style theory about ancient alien contact kick-starting human civilisation. And there are predictions for the future…
Shocking forward 300 years, there are slow pans around the ‘Ocelot’, a grubby lived-in spaceship leaving the Phobos One Processing base en route for Earth. Charles Finch (Cullum Austin) is a young likeably ambitious Pilot Second Class. Harry Emerson (Marcus McMahon) is contrastingly bored and tired, on his final flight, and taking time out to immerse in holo-dream sequences of a beach, in a hibernation-matrix sleep-pod. But crew-member Paula dies in a shipboard accident, and there are malfunctions, shut-downs, and communication failure. Unshaven engineer Rupert (Rohit Gokani) gets into dialogue with ‘Meryl’ – a controlling computer-voice given to asking awkward existential questions about the meaning of life and death. So already it’s ‘a ship with a death-wish’. In a tight group-jeopardy hazard, there are atmospheric silences, lurking tensions, suspicions, and conversations whispered so that Meryl will not overhear. That’s until Rupert accesses the core-room, where he’s killed by decompression.
Somnus has been unfairly slated as ‘derivative’, and its meditative pacing – cut with pulsing jellyfish and aquatic tides, has obvious affectionate homage-references to earlier films. But that’s hardly uncommon, as sci-fi eats itself it becomes increasingly a cut-and-mix ripped-collage of stolen ideas and images, yet the influences here are used creatively. McMahon, who shares the commentary with tyro Reading, voice-overs about model-making the miniatures and animatronic creature-effects, with such hand-crafting investing sharp-edges you don’t get with CGI, grafting on what Chris calls ‘a nice organic feel’ to the exteriors. While the ship’s retro-interiors recall – and actually use grimy Cold War era planes, with dials and numbered relays, hardwired with flick-switches and alert-bulbs. It’s pleasingly low-cost in an attractively Dark Star (1974) way.
Meryl informs the surviving duo that “our destiny has been changed by a force we cannot control,” diverting them to Mining Station 16 on the bleak airless Somnus asteroid. Yet when Harry finds himself in a domed-forest, as well as the obvious budgetary location advantages, there are deliberate flashbacks to the hydroponic habitats of Silent Running (1972). The colony has degenerated into anarchy. Mac McDonald – who featured as Captain Hollister in Red Dwarf episodes, as well as Simpson in Aliens (1986), contributes a gloriously over-the-top cameo as the Somnus Guardian, as obsessively mad as Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979), but with radiation-burn facials. While snaggle-toothed Emily (Victoria Oliver), with her lethal fanged-frog companion, tells a confused Harry “this is a time of death. We are the privileged few.”
Now things get correspondingly cosmic. An animated sequence splices in the ‘science from the sun-gods’ link back to the prophetic pre-credit journal – ‘the gift we discovered 300 years ago’, which McDonald and his ‘like-minded visionaries’ use as a lifestyle manual. And although we only get to see two of them, this eccentric rabble will repopulate an Earth that “has been purged of all human life by an unknown intelligence from outside the Solar system.” Aliens who detect human aggression, perceive it as a threat, and pre-emptively cleanse the world, returning Earth to its pristine pre-human state. So that’s it then, we’re all doomed!
Is this denouement just a hastily tacked-on contrivance to add narrative rigour? Perhaps, but there’s a kind of exuberant energy about this entire project that makes it work, despite its limitations; a kind of playful spontaneity that larger-scale productions can no longer get away with. So treasure this seat-of-the-pants indie element while you can, before these creatives get headhunted by mainstream studios.
Back in the ship Meryl pleads with Harry – ‘Please stop’, HAL-style, as he drags her fluid-suspended human wired-body from its tank. He sets the doomsday stellar fusion device to terminally detonate Somnus and end these hang-over dregs of humanity, and retreats to his primal beach with his virtual wife, or not. The ending is purposefully and teasingly ambiguous. As a directorial full-length debut by London-based Chris Reading the movie is drenched in affection for his formative influences – as he openly acknowledges in an interview, yet creatively twists its zero-budget resources into an impressive mind-stretch of a trip.