Reviews Short Narrative

Among the Stars (2014) – 3 stars

Director: Joel Johnston

Writers: Dia Taylor

Cast: Isaac Still

Running time: 7 mins

See the full film here.

The shoestring budget that most independent filmmakers are forced to grapple with is one of the industry’s most infamous challenges. A creative mind will often have ideas that out-strip the resources it has available to make it a reality, and failing to acknowledge this limitation ultimately only leads to disaster. The best ideas in the world can be instantly undone by a story which over-stretches the capacity of a Director.

There is such a thing as playing it too safe, too, however, and it is this side of the independent circuit’s juggling act that Among the Stars actually falls short on. Director Joel Johnston’s sci-fi is compact, well-paced, and neatly edited, using an array of astral stock images to compliment a strong solo performance from actor Isaac Still, but beyond that it does surprisingly little to engage the imagination.

Johnston’s collaboration with Dia Taylor’s on the script is a competent one, and delivers the key beats you would expect for a film release about a year after Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity hit cinemas. Our stranded astronaut drifts haplessly through space, ruminating on the order of the universe, the origins of life and the vastness of it all, humbled and accepting of his fate. However, the film is almost too good at this; to the extent it begins to feel cliché, and even a little sappy.

The mind of the viewer will likely wander while Still’s Captain Michaels monologues about the stardust in us all, and frankly it is likely the audience’s imagination will come up with something of greater interest than he ever touches on. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bitter-sweet twinge of sadness when watching a man go to his grave still filled with awe and respect for the galaxy he worked so hard to see for himself, but I would also be lying if I said I hadn’t imagined a more interesting film where he was a good deal more bitter and resentful at the shoddy hand dealt to him by the universe.

The truth of the matter is that we have all seen this film before, and something that would dare to buck the trends of the genre would be a refreshing and more eye-catching change, then. In the infinite playground of space, once the situation has been established, literally any theme could be toyed with at the leisure of the writer, beyond simply having reverence for how big everything is. Even with a minimal budget it is possible to do this.

One of my favourite examples of doing more with less is Bruce McDonald’s Canadian zombie film Pontypool. It is clear that budgetary restraints of the production meant that there was no way of conveying the vast scale of an undead apocalypse, so the film sets itself entirely within a radio studio reporting on the end of the world. The action is replaced with words, but it is a gripping, restrained and claustrophobic watch which I heartily recommend at any opportunity.

As a low-budget filmmaker then, the key is not to so much to try to limit the scope of a film’s production without clipping its wings with regards to imagination. Among the Stars succeeds on one front, and with little resources suitably conveys the grandeur of space, without dwelling on it for so long that we become jaded by stock footage and graphic design work. On the other hand, however, the filmmakers need to craft more innovative narratives in future, in order to tell a strong smaller-scale plot in front of this impressive backdrop.

Among the Stars is a competent if unimaginative sci-fi, which does enough to play on the heartstrings of the average audience, but verges on the mawkish at times. It sticks to tried and tested universals, when it would do well to surprise audiences by being a little more playful with its dark subject matter. Johnston and Taylor come away from this with a great deal of credit, but in future they could look to deliver more ambitious themes, even if working on a similarly limited budget.

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