“Science Friction” (2013, Canada) – Director Liam P Kiernan - sciencefrictionthemovie.com
“Science Friction” is a movie I really wanted to like. When I was invited to the first ever screening of a new Montreal-made sci-fi movie I was very excited. The trailer promised tense drama with lots of action and other-worldly happenings – an asteroid slowing as it approaches the earth; a glowing sphere, arcing with energy; a strange figure in a diving suit wandering through a cave; explosions, blood, and fire.
The narrative of the movie concerns reluctant projectionist Jack, who is tricked into chauffeuring three girls on a drug run across the Mexican border. Deep in the Mexican woods (which look suspiciously like Quebec, but that’s forgivable!), they take a wrong turn and find themselves in trouble, stranded by a dilapidated old house. Inside lives a crazed old man, Billy, and an alien presence lurks in the caves below.
The ideas underlying the narrative are clever: the alien compels each character to each face the demons of their past, to conquer the guilt that is, as one beautiful line of dialogue describes it, “tattooed upon their souls”. Flashbacks and smart Tarantino-style time jumps are used to convey backstory with good effect, and I enjoyed being left with a puzzle to piece together.
Unfortunately, the movie falls flat in the execution of this vision, suffering in part from bad acting, clumsy, anachronistic dialogue and poor sound & voiceover choices (one scene in Mexican prison feels almost ethereal due to the way it has been dubbed). Such issues snap you back to reality and make it hard to lose yourself in the story and the cinematic experience. However the movie’s biggest failing is this: It never SHOWS us anything. I wanted to feel for the characters as they fled or fought for their lives. But I was unmoved, largely due to the way in which monsters and threats are established – often through dialogue, exposition or auditory cues which are not as obvious as they should be. There is a certain unintentional distance between the viewer and the characters which makes it hard to empathize with them.
Often when I should have been scared or tense, I was instead confused, pondering the meaning of a line of dialogue, wondering what I’m supposed to think or whether I missed something. I found myself praying for an over-the-shoulder or point-of-view shot, something to place me closer to the action. But time and again, the filmmakers took the easy option of having someone say what’s happened rather than letting us experience it through the characters. This is Writing 101 – Show, don’t tell!
This creative problem can’t just be explained away by the low budget; movies from throughout cinema history, from 1963’s The Haunting to 2011’s Absentia, have shown that you can make an extremely un-nerving experience without ever actually showing the monster.
In fairness, there is one gripping scene – a flashback involving a small boy and his teenaged sister. Atmospheric and disturbing, this is perhaps the darkest moment in the movie and it really gives you the shivers – without showing everything. I wish Science Friction had more scenes like this.
The movie fares a little better when viewed as a science fiction rather than a horror. But a good sci-fi needs to ask interesting questions, and provide enough clues to let you try and answer them. Every alien entity or otherworldly phenomenon needs to have rules, motives and understandable behaviours. And I am sure the writers had these planned out, but not enough of those ideas made it to the screen; we never get to explore the nature of the alien sphere and how and why it is influencing people, because so much time is spent with the protagonists, “being scared”. Even after discussions with the director, I still find this a frustratingly unclear movie – with critical key facts being delivered far too subtly through fleeting shots or throwaway lines dubbed over scene transitions. As a sci-fi, Science Friction falls short because it doesn’t give you the viewer enough hints to help you know why things happen.
Even though the movie lacks something in targetting horror and sci-fi audiences, there are some redeeming features to this movie:
L. Paschal Tenet (the director, under his acting pseudonym) gives an outstanding performance. Billy is played beautifully and is perhaps the only character with an arc that is believable from start to finish – the crazed madman, schizophrenically switching back to a fearful but caring coward and ultimately gaining clarity and purpose. Kristina Bond is excellent as Eddi’s worried girlfriend, perhaps the most believable of all, and I would love to have seen her in more than just the two scenes that bookend the movie. Also of note is Stephanie Kollmar, the only one of the three main girls who seems to have any professional acting skill. She is extremely believable when being held captive, and you can feel her pain and frustration at the end.
The special effects in the movie are good, especially the alien sphere, the asteroid ship, and most of the fire and blood effects. I wish they hadn’t used Google Earth map screenshots to establish location though. On the whole, the movie *looks* great, with strong location choices, from artistically-lit cave interiors to a raging river, dark night-time roads and a rundown old shack. The sound effects and musical ambience work well, subtly blending into the background at all but one spot (where a dramatic drumbeat makes one line hard to hear). The opening and closing credits have strong musical accompaniments that make the movie feel slick and professional.
Overall though, this movie falls into that “middle ground” of mediocrity. It has a great concept, but is poorly executed, and fails to live up to the potential of its vision.
In conclusion, Science Friction is a watch-once-and-forget affair. It’s no masterpiece but it will keep your interest and keep you entertained for 90 minutes. Fair warning though – you’d be best advised to switch off your brain and not ask too many questions, or you’ll find yourself getting frustrated and reaching for the rewind button.
My rating: 4/10.