Short films have always been a method for getting into the right doors in Hollywood, but they’ve become increasingly popular as calling cards in the past decade. More than any other genre, sci-fi short films specifically have earned the attention of studios looking for properties that both feel fresh and feel like they’ve been tested in the public eye, so we’re seeing more and more proof-of-concept projects scooped up with plans to stretch them into feature length.
E. B. Rhee’s The Garden is the latest, and it represents a slight shift in thinking. First of all, it’s not a short film. It’s a trailer through and through. While some short films and proofs-of-concept seek to show a single scene or tell a brief, complete story, this riff on “Paradise Lost” is a sequence of the exact scene bursts you’d see in a trailer without any pesky connective tissue. We meet the cocky world savior as he’s being told his recruitment isn’t a request, he’s apparently got a past with some woman we don’t know, laser blasts go off, an alien race of angry-looking beasts has to be laser blasted, people scream while shooting lasers, and the whole thing turns on a half-century-old Twilight Zone twist from a mile away.
In fact, it’s all cliches. There isn’t a single original idea in the whole crappy thing.
The entire video is built so thoroughly with stuff we’ve seen a billion times before that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Rhee intended it as parody. The gruff commanding officer, the thousand-yard heroic stares, the dying planet, the angry enemies, the “alien” planet turning out to be earth with (surprise!) Adam and Eve surviving the onslaught. A dude even gets hilariously chopped in half by a laser beam while thoughtful piano music soars. By the time you get to the CPR-giving heroine shout “Fight, damn it!,” you know it’s safe to laugh out loud.
At least she doesn’t say, “Don’t you die on me,” but it’s also unclear how slapping and crying brings him back to life.
You might think it’s the visuals that prove the worthiness here, but the green screen work is all clunky and rushed. None of it looks particularly impressive (except for a few close-up shots of the Diablo-esque baddies and the destruction of a large space ship).
So, with a rehashed story, pre-fab characters and middling CGI, all Rhee has done is prove that he can shoot and cut a $30,000 trailer for a movie that doesn’t exist. Except now it will, because Warner Bros. subsidiary Polymorphic Pictures has picked it up. This is absolutely fascinating for all the obvious reasons.
There’s a few things to keep in mind, though.
One, the glut of interest in sci-fi short films (and now this trailer thing) hasn’t resulted in feature film success yet. Dan Trachtenberg’s Portal: No Escape got him attention in 2011 and set him up for more work (his first feature, the Bad Robot flick Valencia, finally comes out next year); Matt Westrup’s DNA-bending The Gate was also picked up in 2012, but nothing has come of it yet; same with R’ha in 2013; this year also saw the dreamy Sundays and bloody Controller optioned for major consideration, but it’s too soon to see if they go the distance.
A few shorts (like 9, Mama and the District 9 predecessor Alive in Joburg) have made the leap, but while there are a lot of things in the works (or stuck in development hell), we’ve yet to see a large scale trend of short film conversion in earnest. The bottom line? Being optioned doesn’t mean much, and despite Deadline claiming the studio is looking to make a new franchise with this, I highly doubt it will ever get made. It won’t even get close.
Leviathan Concept Art
As for pure proofs-of-concept, Ruairi Robinson’s Leviathan (which consists solely of a gorgeous chase scene involving a space whale) was optioned this year by Neill Blomkamp and Simon Kinberg, who has a first look deal at Fox. The elements that set apart Leviathan (and others) from The Garden is the craftsmanship they were able to display. Robinson had already had a hit with Blinky™, which proved a keen sensibility for storytelling as well as pacing and compelling CGI. Building on that reputation and the popularity of the short, Leviathan solely proves that he has a cool high concept idea, and that he can (alongside other artists) build a CGI landscape that’s genuinely stunning. The visual complexity and execution (which took a year) makes The Garden look like Sharknado. Looking crappy for $30,000 isn’t as big as an achievement as it used to be, but apparently it can win you a contract.
Plus, this is Rhee’s only credit and the only thing on his Vimeo channel, which means he sold it to Polymorphic based on it and the screenplay, which is impressive but also confusing.
It’s arguable that most sci-fi shorts – even the ones that get bought – are lacking in originality, but all of them have at least one impressive element that proves their worth: design, story, character. The Garden has none of them, so its appeal is a mystery, which is why I feel like I’m taking crazy pills when I read the slew of positive comments on the Vimeo page or see The Verge call it “polished” with “visual flair.” The Garden isn’t even getting the kind of buzz that other shorts have (not a Vimeo Staff Pick, not featured on many major sites before the sale), which means it hasn’t even proven its potential popularity.
Then again, The Verge’s Jamieson Cox also sums up the commercial appeal succinctly:
From a business perspective, it’s easy to understand why The Garden was attractive to potential studio buyers. It has a simple, elegant hook that’s familiar from movies like Interstellar — the planet is going to die, and humanity needs to find another home – and it looks great despite being shot for only $30,000.
In short, it’s marketable because it’s not inventive.
This feels right, and it also feels like the worst habits of the studio system on display. It sends a message to aspiring filmmakers that what you need to do to get noticed is craft an aggressively generic, average-looking sci-fi adventure.
And why not? The CGI is shitty, but the studio will hire a different company for that anyway. The acting is all wooden (admittedly because there’s no story/foundation present), but all of these actors will be replaced. The story isn’t interesting or new, but Polymorphic will hire a dozen writers to shape and reshape the script until it’s unrecognizable. Make no mistake, the most likely outcome is that Rhee gets paid for the rights, he’s replaced by a known director, his actors are replaced by known actors, and his script (co-written by Aaron Strongoni) is workshopped by more established screenwriters until the whole thing is shelved anyway.
Thus, the biggest question in all of this is why a studio would pursue it in the first place.
Granted, this is Polymorphic we’re talking about, and not Warner Bros. proper (which makes the franchise bleacher-pointing even more dubious), but it’s arguable that the production house wanted this short film trailer specifically because it’s hackneyed and ready-made for conversion.
Meanwhile, there’s a consistent flow of inventive, beautiful sci-fi short films (here, too) that aren’t being bought by studios. Hopefully their creators are getting the attention they deserve despite the lack of press coverage.
It’s still frustrating that something this bland is getting traction, but it’s overwhelmingly more encouraging to see the specific sci-fi short films (actual short films, for starters) that have been optioned or bought outright by major studios. It’s unfortunate that not a lot has come of them, and there are so many more that deserve attention, but that’s the nature of the beast whether it’s short films or screenplays or adaptations of PEZ dispensers.
It would be easy to view this news as more proof that studios are looking for the overly familiar and uninspired, but it’s just one example from one small outfit. The news is curious for all the aforementioned reasons, but it’s also fleeting – a development as forgettable as the movie itself.