second-guessing slate’s sci-fi shorts selections, day 4

Another day, another doorknob, and another sci-fi short reviewed from Slate.com’s 2012 best-of list. Spoilers ahead, so watch the film first.

Seed is the first short of this series that feels like the script and production design are both so classy that I might be watching a wide-release indie film. All of these shorts have professional-looking FX and mostly solid cinematography, but a lot of the landscape in Seed is especially exquisite and would be great documentary footage on its own.

Other good thing: The future as presented in Seed feels the realest of all the shorts. Partly it’s just the lack of fancy gadgetry; Kamp’s gear looks practical, not stylish, which seems only appropriate, and a lot of the film feels as immediate and as threatening as it should.

The best part of Seed, though, is probably the ambitious storytelling, which makes strategic use of ambiguity. First, we don’t quite know why Kamp is scouting this world. As I pointed out in an earlier entry in this series, screenwriters often have to make explicit the everyday facts that a character would normally not need to discuss, such as this guy’s purpose for being here. Seed turns this problem on its head by forgetting the explanation and letting us puzzle through with enough hints.

The second ambiguous point is created by occasional effects shots of Kamp; they seem to be POV shots, maybe of a predator, and the perspective is fragmented and repeated, as if it’s from a bug’s eye. Who or what is checking him out? We never learn.

Finally, there seems to be some sort of temporal funny business going on, as Kamp discovers that he had seen his own image up on a cliff earlier in his journey, and finds what seems to be his own corpse with a large wound in his back. I’m a little worried that this might just be a steal from Timecrimes and Moon (and those are just off the top of my head), but the movie leaves this unexplained, as well, which I guess is new. For unclear reasons, the short actually presents the same shot of Kamp and his own dead body three times. The first and last times are at the very beginning and ending of the film and each show living Kamp standing left of the Kamp corpse. But during the main continuity of the film, when he actually discovers the corpse in the course of his journey, we see this same shot reversed so that living Kamp is right of the Kamp corpse.

What this means, I have no idea, but color me intrigued.

The bad news is that Seed‘s strategically deployed use of confusion is matched by parts of the movie that are just confusing and not strategic at all, unless the director is a lot more clever than I am.

By purposely letting us puzzle out what Kamp is doing on this planet (at least for much of the film), the filmmakers also make it hard to understand what is at stake at any given moment. Without knowing the perils of the alien environment, we don’t know when to tense up and when to relax. At one point, late at night, the camera goes dark, and the next cut is to daylight; Kamp is up and scrambling. Presumably he fell asleep. Why is that bad? Was he supposed to pitch a tent? And are those odd sounds around him? I can’t really tell from the soundtrack.

Or, as another example, take the scene where he finds his own body. We haven’t actually seen Kamp’s face without a mask, so when he turns the head of the corpse around and sees what is presumably his own visage, he jumps back in shock, but it’s not clear to us why. In the next shot, he’s hiking along, speaking into his microphone and saying he’s found a body, “my own,” but I only got that through listening very carefully the second time and making some guesses based on seeing Timecrimes. Actually, the whole movie has some of that problem that director Christopher Nolan ran up against with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: Audiences don’t want to be hung up on something as dumb as not being able to understand what someone is saying.

A last note, more an observation than a critique. This was the only one of Slate’s picks that needn’t have been set in the future to be successful. Seed seems to be treating loneliness and isolation as one of its themes, which you get a feeling of when Kamp watches a video from his daughter on the tiny screen of what is probably an iPhone in reality. Anybody could look lonesome on an alien planet, but somehow, this little video phone just makes him seem even more remote, which is funny because that’s the least sci-fi thing about this film.

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