Reviews Short Narrative

One Minute to Midnight (2020) – 3 stars

Director: James Brammer

Writer: James Brammer

Cast: William J. Brammer, Lee Wilson

Running time: 7mins

Social science-fiction is a broad term to describe any work of speculative fiction that features social commentary in its foreground – while arguably being a ‘soft’ form of sci-fi, as this makes it slightly less concerned with the hows and whys behind the hypothetical technology it features. Modern examples span everything from Star Trek’s peaceful post-capitalist Federation to the often brutal and totalitarian worlds depicted in Black Mirror – but the sub-genre is a lot older than you might think.

Early examples can arguably be found in Thomas Moore’s 1516 story Utopia or H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine – both of which feature comments and criticisms of their contemporary societies, while featuring sci-fi elements such as experimenting with political science, physics and medicine. Ultimately, that central strand of imagining technological and systemic developments before theorising what impact they would have on society is the same which runs through modern social sci-fi.

First and foremost then, if filmmakers are looking to make a solid intervention in the sub-genre, this is the element which needs to be prioritised. In the case of fledgling filmmakers making their first forays into cinema, that can prove something of a pitfall however. While social sci-fi provides a great number of opportunities to work with eerie lighting, pulsating synth-scores and creative camera angles – as well as an excuse to minimise cost by utilising fewer actors, and improvising sets and props – if you don’t have something big worth saying at the heart of it, the resulting film will be worth less than the sum of its parts.

On the balance of things, this is something I am happy to say James Brammer (a student filmmaker from Ballard High School, Seattle) manages to pull off in his film One Minute to Midnight. On a technical level, the film is undeniably strong. While the sound engineering is a little echoey at points, Claire Kilkenny’s lighting – particularly in the film’s post-apocalyptic mid-point – gives off a suitably unnerving glow. At the same time, Myles Busch’s relaxed syth-driven score compliments the action without being overbearing, or seeking to domineer the audience into feeling a certain way. Director of Photography Jasper Swift also excels, finding a number of innovative framing techniques to disguise the film’s budgetary constraints having led to it mostly being filmed in the same room. These are all the technical elements a social-sci fi theoretically needs, but without a meaningful story, it would have all the harmony of an orchestra without a conductor.

Fortunately, the film does fulfil its intended function as a treatise on the dangers of unchecked scientific advances in the age of the military industrial complex. The story is a solid intervention in the process which continues to incentivise the world’s greatest minds to squander their talents, dreaming up innovative new ways of wiping life from the face of the earth. Dr Hugo Laar (William J. Brammer, who I assume is related) seems irredeemably invested in the previously mentioned process; the ambitious NASA scientist has his sights set on winning a prestigious award and multi-million-dollar prize for his efforts in ushering in a nuclear holocaust.

A toy astronaut adorns his desk, seemingly symbolising a long-lost childhood dream of scientific exploration for the sake of bettering humanity’s future, as he prepares to submit the final prototype of his doomsday device to his bosses. For all of the excellent ‘show not tell’ filmmaking on display here, however, the film’s one-note scripting is, to be frank, a little earnest.

While One Minute to Midnight’s story might be about the final chapter of life on earth, it would not hurt Brammer to give his lead actor something with a bit more levity to get his teeth into. A little snarky banter with his digital assistant, for example, would go a long way to humanise Dr Laar – and it cannot be overstated how important that is. Firstly, because it helps show that there is still a seed of hope on which to build his coming character arc, but secondly – arguably more importantly in social sci-fi – because history’s darkest chapters are written by humans, not ‘monsters’; to downplay that diminishes the responsibility we should all take in learning from their actions.

The Spartan nature of Brammer’s script sees the plot rush into some kind of horrific premonition sequence of Dr Laar, just as he is preparing to submit his apocalyptic device. It is unclear how or why he suddenly finds himself in the ash-filled crater that was once his office one year in the future, and even if social sci-fi is seen as ‘soft’ sci-fi, more needs to be done in that regard to explain his sudden leap forward.

What is done well in this sequence is that while sifting through the piles of ash in his former office, Dr Laar discovers two items; a trophy from the International Committee of Science and Technology for his Proton Orb, and his toy spaceman. This illustrates the duality of our protagonist’s nature, and the choice he is now faced with; a choice which contemporary society must also make in the now endless age of climate Armageddon. We can either get back in touch with our finest traits, harness our inquisitive and innovative skills for the good of all, or we can collectively perish.

Having returned to his own timeline – somehow still clutching both items – it is not especially surprising to see which option Dr Laar chooses – and that’s OK. One of the most beautiful things about social sci-fi is that it can provide us with an imaginative platform from which to dream of a better world – culture provides us with a huge vault of evidence depicting how bad we can be, but precious little to encourage us to be better (this is what makes the current trajectory of Picard so heart-breaking, having completely abandoned the wider utopian vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for some relatively cheap digs at modern party politics).

In the end, then, Brammer’s film has a good heart – even if its slightly rushed approach does border on the clinical side – and shows real potential if he ever wishes to return to this genre. This is summarised by a lovely closing scene, where our protagonist sighs with relief at a shooting-star he momentarily mistook for something far darker. If Brammer can find the space in his next films for more moments like that, he could well find that magical social sci-fi formula of something both emotionally and socially poignant.

One of the most frustrating things about film education in schools is that it sees aspiring directors handed a wealth of technology and talent, but sometimes does little in the way of encouraging them to say anything with those marvellous tools. James Brammer has done well to avoid such trappings – and the weighty message he has worked to imbue his film with means the excellent work of his team has not gone to waste. While there is still room for improvement, that should be seen less of a short-coming for Brammer than an opportunity – one I look forward to seeing him grasp with both hands.

Are you a filmmaker looking for independent professional feedback like this? For honest, straightforward opinions and constructive insight into how you can improve your work, submit your work to Indy Film Library on FilmFreeway now.

3 comments

  1. One Minute to Midnight is currently screening online at the Global Indie Film Fest. Register for free at http://gifilmfest.com, watch great films and vote for One Minute to Midnight in the categories of Short Films! Please vote and share!

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