It's rare these days to come out of a theater gushing about a new science fiction movie. There have been a couple of bright spots in recent memory -- Inception and Looper were both fantastic, and Avatar certainly happened -- but good sci-fi flicks are few and far between in Hollywood, which is why you should stop looking for them there. Some of the best sci-fi being shot today is right here on the Internet -- you know, the place where you can check your bank balance and masturbate without ever getting up. And now the Internet is adding another feature to keep your eyeballs bleeding and your muscles atrophying: amazing science fiction films so short, even ADD-riddled pseudo-children like us can sit through the whole thing. And you can watch all of them right now, for free, and in less time than it takes to rub one out! Which I assume you terribly literal bastards will take as a personal challenge.
#5. The Gift
Finally, The Gift is here to answer the question absolutely nobody asked: What would it look like if a drunken 19th century Russian duke wrote I, Robot? Design and cinematography are The Gift's strongest suits; from the Half-Life-esque guards to the world's snootiest robot, whom I shall dub Snootbot, it's apparent that the film has style to spare.
But what's most impressive here is the amount of world building that takes place in such a small amount of time. Feature-length filmmakers, take note: The human brain is pretty good at filling in the blanks. Thirty seconds into The Gift, and with absolutely no dialogue or text, we are able to discern the time frame, the location, and at least a general sense of both atmosphere and history. This is an upscale neighborhood of a dystopian Russian city in the near future. Some sci-fi movies need three paragraphs of intro text and 20 minutes of clumsy exposition to get as much info across.
There are more questions than answers in The Gift. I'm assuming the titular gift is not a literal unicorn, although who knows? Maybe there's a tiny glowing horse chillin' in that box, and robots just happen to love equines as much as preteen girls and Daniel O'Briens. Why is the courier so prepared to kill for it if he had no idea what it was upon delivery? What is the robot sorry for, and who is he apologizing to? But don't worry, because The Gift has the answer to the only question that matters.
That question is: Robot motorcycle chase? That answer is: Fuck yes.
If The Gift seems like a teaser, that's because it probably is -- and it works like crazy. If this was the first five minutes of a feature-length film, it would be the tightest five minutes ever edited, and I, for one, would gladly fork over my money to watch the rest of Snootbot Rising: The Tiniest Unicorn.
"Short" is a purely relative term, especially on the Internet. In my long and storied online career, I have seen so much. I've seen killer comedy sketches tank because they're four entire minutes long; I've seen beautiful writing completely overlooked because it didn't have random stock images inserted every other paragraph; I've seen starships burning off the shoulder of Orion, and all the other watchers turned away and left because there was a 10-second ad that ran first. Which is why Vacuity, the longest of these sci-fi shorts, is probably going to warrant the least amount of attention. It has the audacity to be 13 minutes long, and there's not a single exploding motorcycle robot anywhere. But it's worth the very meager amount of time it asks of you.
Vacuity has its problems -- for some reason, the protagonist recites a dramatic countdown to synchronize both of his own arms, the climax has dialogue so hokey that you'll wonder if they make Hallmark cards for astronauts dying of asphyxiation, and it's good to see that the voice-acting cast from the original Resident Evil game has found other work in online sci-fi shorts -- but it's the little things that make it great. The operating system the astronaut is using, for example:
That OS is not as novel as Minority Report's, or even particularly good-looking, but it's simple, clear, and intuitive. It's a tiny, blink-and-you'll-miss-it detail that helps the world feel more convincing and occupied. It looks like somebody actually developed that operating system over a handful of generations, and you believe the main character's easy familiarity with (and reliance upon) it. Which is a good thing, because the closest thing to a "villain" in this film is a simple, infuriating, unhelpful error message. Although Vacuity's "Error 11323" is slightly worse than your "PC Load Letter," the principle is the same. Whether it's trying to slip a quick wank in before the kids get home from soccer practice, racing a deadline for your very job, or just trying not to suffocate in space, we've all dealt with that error message at the worst possible time. That's what makes good sci-fi work: taking some small part of technology today and extrapolating it out to its logical extreme.
And while the fact that the entirety of Vacuity takes place in a completely unadorned, cramped white room might turn some people off, I think it's pretty killer that a sparse 13-minute film with an $80 set can tell 10 times the story of the Transformers movies, which needed six hours and giant robots teabagging the great pyramids just to keep their audience's attention.
We have officially entered Bizarro World: Here is some of the most gorgeous and detailed animation you'll ever see, and it's for a five-minute sci-fi short on YouTube. The world of RUIN might seem a bit generic at first -- it's just more browns and grays and cracked highways -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, the whole Detroit/apocalypse atmosphere has been done before, but it's not always done right -- and RUIN absolutely does it right.
This is the closest you're going to get to a Fallout movie. Too often games and movies set the post-apocalypse in a small town, like Jericho, or the middle of an empty desert wasteland, like Beyond Thunderdome. I don't know if that's because it's simply too resource-consuming to set post-apocalyptic films in more interesting places, or if directors with a degree in Awesome Comprehension are in short supply, but the setting of RUIN is spot-on. The film takes place in the absolute heart of a gargantuan, crumbling metropolis, with an appreciably pretty amount of natural decay splattered about. And then RUIN blows the holy crap out of said beautiful desolation with -- you guessed it -- a bitchin' robot motorcycle chase.
You can roll your eyes at the trope if you like, but ever since a motorcycle-bound Kaneda first bashed a crime-clown's head in during the intro of Akira, sci-fi knows to give the people what they want. It's worth paying special attention to RUIN, if only because it proves that the sci-fi short is a viable form of feature-length movie pitch. Twentieth Century Fox actually bought the rights to RUIN after seeing this "demo," and it's now being turned into a full film. Hopefully they keep the hero's pierced baseball cap. It really makes you root for the poor guy -- trying to survive the robot apocalypse while struggling with clinical-grade stupidity.
On a purely personal note: God fucking damn it, guys behind RUIN, the throttle is controlled with the right hand, and you don't twist it forward to go.