Reviews Short Narrative

The Red World (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Sophia Ralston

Writers: Sophia Ralston

Cast: Roger Bonjour, Anna-Katharina Müller, Leroy Tapsell, Olivier Petignat

Running time: 8mins

For more information on Sophia Ralston’s films, visit her website.

At the heart of every work of science fiction, one central paradox threatens to make or break the world being created. The genre’s connoisseur eternally demand detailed explanations of the scenario being constructed – deprive them of this, and they will complain that the universe could be more immersive – but often the more information they are given, the more holes they will pick in a production, and the less believable they will find it.

I would argue this intersection is the x-factor that can forge the greatest sci-fi. Knowing what the audience needs to know, and what they can be left to wonder about, tends to be what has made the earlier incarnations of some of the genre’s most successful films, from Blade Runner and Star Wars, to Night of the Living Dead. Knowing where the line was drawn, where viewers knew enough to be engaged, but not so much that they begin seeking logical analysis of the fictional universe saw these films capture the imaginations of generations of viewers. They also illustrate the counter point, as the longer the franchises those films have ticked on, the more fraught and contradictory their ‘universes’ seem to be.

Sophia Ralston’s cautionary short film The Red World suffers from a concentrated version of this problem – while its ambition is admirable, it tries to do too much in too little time to really land a definitive emotional, intellectual or political impact on its audience. That’s not to say the film isn’t any good – there are some great ideas in here – it is more the case that it is a shame the great ideas were crowded out by some hastily cobbled together attempts at world building.

The film follows a father (Roger Bonjour) and his son (Leroy Tapsell) as they hope to win passage to the titular ‘Red World.’ The idea of a desperate humanity scrambling to terraform Mars, before abandoning the Earth whose climate they have destroyed, might not be entirely original, but intersecting it with a refugee crisis is a clever piece of writing. This is partially because the present breakdown of the climate and the disintegration of human society are intrinsically linked – and also because it gives us the opportunity to address the two narrative strands by getting to know our lead characters – building a world which is detailed enough to invest in, but vague enough to buy, and helping us connect emotionally to the central players of the story. The young father is a talented biochemist who has escaped from a Germany which has descended into fascism – and whose son’s birth was not authorised.

Bonjour’s character reveals himself to have unlocked the key to engineering underwater plants – something which a passing soldier (Anna-Katharina Müller) takes a great interest in. Simultaneously, she seems unable to compute that having this key to the future might negate the need for stringent migration and breeding regulations – and so the situation quickly descends into a standoff where our protagonist has to use the survival of the precious plant as a bargaining chip to save his son’s life. With millions of talented, resourceful and intelligent people still imprisoned in refugee camps across Europe and Asia – locked away out of fear and resentment by countries that routinely complain of ‘talent shortages’ – there’s a really interesting social comment at play here. In The Red Planet, whatever future exists for humanity and its systems of power and control depends on the ingenuity of people who have been deemed “illegal.”

Unfortunately, this stand-off is fleeting at best, occurring in the closing moments of the film. Following its resolution, the film abruptly cuts to black, before flashing the warning “This is not a drill!” across the screen. It all seems so rushed – and considering this was the meat of the movie, the part where we could have taken some kind of message from, it is bewildering that it was given less than a quarter of the film’s run-time.

This is especially frustrating when you consider almost two minutes of the films early screen-time is devoted to a particularly unconvincing news segment. Only a very small portion of that segment helps to contribute to the narrative – relating to scientists’ failed attempts to clone sea-vegetation – and it is bunged on the end of a number of other announcements. I can see why it is tempting when building a world in a small amount of time to do this – it gives an overview of a world descending rapidly into hell while keeping running time down.

It’s more than a little on the nose too. We have nowhere else to look during the broadcast, and some viewers will feel more than a little patronised by that approach. Here is all the information about this world, you will ingest it. Perhaps this is the kind of thing which would have played well in the background – as you would see in Children of Men for example – non-intrusively hinting at the broader world to eagle-eyed viewers, rewarding attention to detail. This would have freed up more space to develop the plot, and iron out a rickety ending, while also stopping us nit-picking the contents of the news programme. After all, nothing we hear about is nearly as hellish as the things we see or hear from our characters, so the news broadcast ends up feeling like a lot of timid crystal-ball-gazing. Extinction rebellion riots you say? There’s a new German Reich sweeping the continent, I’d say we’re a little beyond being alarmed by that!

One area Ralston and her team do nail the world-building is the sets they place their characters into. For example, canny use of drone footage to capture just enough of the Botanischer Garten of the University of Zurich gives the impression that we have been whisked away to a crumbling government research facility, where a shrinking team of scientists and military overseers seek to bio-engineer a future for humanity. Very little of that information was concretely offered by the film – but the fact it offered just enough stimulus for us to assume that is the case shows, in some cases, Ralston is able to get the balance right, and show us enough to get us thinking, without overcomplicating things.

Overall, there are a lot of things to like about The Red World – but they are let down by a failure to trim back the overgrown foliage of additional factoids which obscure these from view. The need to get everything in means too little time is spent on the relationships and conflicts that everything else should be built around.

Not too long ago, I criticised Retina for its lack of ambition regarding world-building. As it is, The Red Planet goes too far the other way – and its disregard for its most important standalone elements mean it comes across as an audition, hoping some producer will overlook its rushed ending to engage its creators for a grander projects. Polished and engaging shorts make the best proof of concepts though, and editing down future efforts will undoubtedly help Sophia Ralston get noticed as an exciting young filmmaker, with lots of intriguing and important things to say.

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