It gets harder and harder all the time to tell a good SF story. Not because of the changes in the science, but because there are now so many SF stories out there. It has become quite difficult to find an idea that hasn’t been used before, and hundreds of stories have been told about some of the most basic SF situations.
So we can hardly be surprised if a story about space exploration and contact with civilizations from distant worlds should seem familiar.
But familiar isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not when a film is as well made as Rob York’s debut film, Magellan.
A mysterious set of signals broadcast from deep within our own solar system has set off a race between NASA and the Chinese space program to explore their sources: Saturn’s moon Titan, Neptune’s Triton and the dwarf planet Eris. There they hope to discover what — or who — is responsible for sending the signal.
NASA sends Commander Roger Nelson (Brandon Ray Olive) on a one man, ten year mission to all three, during which he will spend most of his time in stasis. However, he has to leave his wife behind, knowing that she will have to face those ten years alone.
As Roger moves further from Earth, he becomes more and more cut off from home: his messages grow fewer, it takes longer to communicate, a lot of changes have taken place back at NASA, his technical problems become larger and he begins making more of his decisions by himself…
Parts of Rob’s film will remind you of 2001 (or perhaps 2010 would be closer) and there are elements reminiscent of other films as well, such as Interstellar. But that is no surprise when you are watching a film that deals with both the exploration of space and contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Where Magellan triumphs, however, is in the deeply human conflict that confronts Roger Nelson, who finds his love for his wife balanced against his overwhelming desire to explore, to learn the secret of the mysterious signals, and to find some proof that we are not alone in our Galaxy.
Purists may complain that, like a lot of very low budget productions, Rob York makes no effort to reproduce the effects of zero gravity in his space ship — or the lower gravity on the moons Roger visits. But considering the technical challenges — and expense — involved in even a brief weightless sequence, that’s no surprise. They may also insist that the dazzling visuals of the moons he visits are far too brightly lit, but they are undeniably beautiful and alien, which makes far more visual sense than something too dark to appreciate.
The tightness of Rob’s budget is visible in places, particularly the rather mundane equipment in his shipboard lab which would not work well in a moving vehicle, or some of Roger’s equipment, like his sample boxes. For some reason, the spaceship doesn’t look as well rendered in the later part of the film, either.
But these are minor glitches in an impressive Indie film, which bravely sets out to explore cinematic territory where filmmakers have all too rarely set foot. While Magellan may not be quite as good as the classic films it reminds us of, it is a remarkable and solid effort from a promising young director. It is a suspenseful, complex and often beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.
And that’s rare enough.
(My thanks to Rob York for providing a screener)