“What will become of America in five, 25, or even 50 years from today?” That is the question the Independent Television Service (ITVS) posed to 11 accomplished filmmakers who were assigned the task of making a short film reflecting their own vision of a not-too-distant American future. The answers are presented on ITVS’s web venture, FUTURESTATES.
None too surprisingly, the futures presented by the filmmakers offer a grim portrait of what’s to come. Themes range from the disastrous effects of global warming to the impending collapse of our economy. The strongest of the entries broach high concepts and pare them down to a tangible plane, within the time constraints of a short film.
Director Tze Chun (“Children of Invention”) is the most successful at achieving this balance in his moving surrogate story, “Silver Sling.” Chun imagines a future where a surrogate can give birth to a child within three months via a shot in the arm. The catch? After giving three such births, the surrogate becomes sterile. The film follows a young Russian surrogate trying to make a living in New York as she struggles to decide whether to perform a third surrogate birth for financial gain, or remain fertile for her boyfriend. The script takes some interesting turns, and Chun, who wrings out strong performances from his fantastic cast, handles the sensationalist material with surprising restraint. The material is good enough to venture into feature territory, given the depth Chun brings to his vision.
Greg Pak tackles an even loftier concept in “Mister Green,” one that’s downright laughable on paper (the title isn’t simply a metaphor). But Pak makes it all plausible through character centric focus that works wonders for a story of such epic scale.
“PIA” from Columbia grad Tanuj Chopra, tells a similarly outlandish tale with an intimate bent. The gorgeously lit film is a tender love story at its core, with a nifty gender bending robot premise to boot. Think of it as “A.I.” if Haley Joel Osment’s robot were not a child, but rather a full grown adult.
The influence of Steven Spielberg’s futuristic riff on “Pinocchio” is even more evident in Ramin Bahrani’s moving fable “Plastic Bag,” which chronicles the journey of a grocery bag that longs to be human. The short is undoubtedly the highest profile film on the slate. Not only is Bahrani the director of the critically lauded “Goodbye Solo,” but “Plastic Bag” also served as the opening night film for the Venice Film Festival’s Corto Cortissimo series, and features narration by director Werner Herzog, with an original score by indie darlings Sigur Ross. Bahrani’s dark fairytale merits its pedigree. Through stunning tracking shots that culminate with the bag caught in the Pacific Ocean’s trash vortex (to which Herzog as the bag laments, “I wish you had created me so that I could die.”), Bahrani manages to imbue the bag with a definable personality while at the same time comment on the destruction we’re collectively wreaking on our planet.
In another strong entry, “Tia & Marco,” Annie J. Howell offers one of FUTURESTATE’s simplest narratives. The tale of a pregnant cop’s gradual understanding of a Mexican illegal immigrant’s plight is a familiar one, but Howell lends the film a thrilling pace in its final stretch that makes for the most viscerally entertaining scene in the entire series.
“Play,” from filmmaker David Kaplan (“Year of the Fish”) and game designer Eric Zimmerman, aims to thrill and provoke with varying degrees of success. That the film is impenetrable seems to be its underlying point. Exploring the dangerous future of interactive gaming, the film revels in a cyber reality universe akin to David Cronenberg’s underrated “eXistenZ.” What starts out as something resembling a brash Jonas Aukerland music video, “Play” periodically takes on entirely different filmmaking styles as the gamers connect to different realities. The effect makes for a surreal short that’s a visual and aural feast, albeit with little substance.
The lesser shorts tackle provocative subject matter for the most part, but fail to follow through with a compelling narrative. “Fallout” from writer/director Ben Rekhi features some fun visuals that recall “Sin City,” but the hackneyed script involving a love story at the end of the world sinks the film’s sole appeal. Amyn Kaderali's “The Other Side” also suffers from a weak script that broaches the timely topic of race relations, only to unfortunately culminate in the sappiest ending of the series.
But, these two works are mere blips on an otherwise impressive lineup of films that are meant to engage and provoke discussion. The best of the shorts, though dire in what they depict, ultimately inspire a call to action to make our future a better place.