enigma – epic sci fi on a budget

EnigmaPosterIf you read my first post on Enigma, you know that I was impressed by the trailer and excerpts, but had two primary issues: I was unimpressed with the animated googly-eyed monkey (put me into painful Lost In Space flashbacks), and I wasn’t sure why one would spend 40K on making something too long for a short but too short to distribute as a feature. Otherwise, I thought the production looked solid and bigger than its budget.

Director/Producer/Editor Jason Shumway was kind enough to drop by and personally defend the googly-eyed-monkey.

“We’ve actually gotten a lot of compliments saying that he is what the Lost In Space character should have been. Unlike LIS, the design is like that for a reason.”

He also addressed the “short vs feature” issue by stating that “it was always intended to be a short and a calling card.

We had no intention to distribute it. It did end up being a bit longer than we originally planned. Unfortunately, the story would not support a feature, it would just look like 45 mins of padding. So we let the story tell us the length. A bit odd, but it’s actually making us stick out a bit in a weird and positive way.”

Furthermore, Jason was double kind enough to send me a screener, so I could see the film in its entirety and offer my thoughts in full context. Score! I love it when people do that! (take that as a hint, y’all)

So I sat down last night and watched Enigma in all its 42 minutes of glory.

The good:

  • It’s ambitious. The story idea hints at a large and complex fictional universe, and doesn’t shy away from tackling it. This was no “how can I tell a sci-fi story in my brother’s apartment” movie.
  • It’s cinematic. The design, lighting, shooting, and editing of the film feel cinematic and professional. And it doesn’t have the MOW quality so often found in small films like this.
  • FX. The film looks at least as good as the best of television’s sci-fi efforts (Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica [the new one]) and better than pretty much anything produced by SyFy – at least in terms of its big set pieces. Ships in flight, planets from space, future human cities, all look plenty good enough for the small screen, and provide promise that given the resources, Brothers Shumway could translate their vision to the big screen (and my reference to B5 is not to say the effects look ten years old – it’s to say that B5 looked good then and still looks good now). And frankly, it might all play fine on the big screen – I’m only hedging that bet given that the FX plates are largely 2D Photoshop matte paintings. They may work just fine 30 feet wide.
  • The makeup. The prosthetics on the alien antagonist are a well handled, elegant design in the best of the “Star Trek humans with lumps on their heads” tradition. She was scary and sexy, and made me feel a little dirty, like if the Borg Queen still had legs to wrap around me.
  • Audio. The sound cues, the musical score, the dialogue recording all served the film well, and again reached a top-notch professional level.
  • Action. The fight choreography was great, and the shooting of it worked well. It takes place in tight, claustrophobic spaces, and the shots stayed tight for all the right reasons. I think there was a little wire work in there, and it was good stuff.
  • Performances. The talent in front of the camera is competent to fine… there were none of the groan-inducing cue card-reading painful performances so often found in so many indies. They’re all clearly real actors, although nobody particularly stood out.
  • The Jeffries Tube. What self-respecting sci-fi film can resist the urge to reference the classic “Scotty lying in an engineering access tube” shot? Wyeth (Cory Rouse) gets the honor in Enigma. I liked it.

The bad:

  • It felt familiar. “A rag tag team of privateers in a ratty second hand spaceship takes on one blue-collar contract job after another in an effort to keep the ship-that-they-love running and remain independent in spite of an overbearing and threatening political presence.” Is that Enigma or Firefly? It’s both. Now I’m a big fan of Firefly, so that’s not a bad thing, but I didn’t see a differentiator. Maybe Enigma was a victim of the cultural influence of Joss Whedon, or maybe it was an homage, but its basic setup felt unoriginal. To be fair, maybe this should be in the “good” column, because it felt like it could stand in the company of Firefly.
  • Casting. As stated above, I can’t say the performances were not good, but I will say that I think two of the primary characters were (at best) miscast. Captain Rhys (Ventura Alvarez – what a great name) simply wasn’t commanding enough for me… he was written commanding, he was set up to be commanding, but he just didn’t have that air. He felt like a sitcom actor… like John Ritter before John Ritter had matured into roles like Vaughan Cunningham. Just a little too affable to be James Kirk or Mal Reynolds. Similarly General Rothman (D. Grigsby Poland) didn’t fill the shoes that the character demanded quite the way I wanted him to.
  • The geography. The bulk of the story takes place on the ship, and like Aliens, the challenge is to get someplace safe (the cockpit) before the beastie gets you. In a situation like that, your audience has to understand just how far that is, how hard it might be to do, and what obstacles lie in your way. This is the “why” behind the typical “blueprint scene” in the Alien franchise, and this story lacked that. I had no idea how big the ship was, but from all appearances it looked to be the size of a nice house… huge engines included. Yet there’s a reference made to “Section 28″ – and there’s no way the ship seemed big enough to have 28 sections. Similarly, there’s a shot of a row of at least 7 escape pods, and a reference to more escape pods elsewhere. But the ship runs fine on a crew of 3, and seems to be largely a freighter. Why all the escape pods? How big is this thing? I just don’t know, and I just couldn’t empathize with their plight.
  • Googly eyed monkey. Sorry, but it didn’t work for me for two reasons: design and execution. The cute little Phobos creature does have an integral story purpose, and his cuteness kind of plays into that; maybe that’s what Jason means when he says “the design is like that for a reason”. But he was too cute, sorry. Care Bear cute, and thus distracting. And his animations were the weakest of the film… great efforts were made to integrate him into the live action (and many worked well) but there were clunker shots that just didn’t hit for me… mostly due to lighting or tracking issues. Mind you, they were good, just not up to the par of the balance of the movie.
  • Length. I respectfully submit that Jason is wrong. This story needs to be a feature. Why? At its current length, the film suffers from a lack of sub plotting and character development. The story deserves more time to investigate its greater aspects, the super and sub plots it hints at, to place the adventure sequence in context. Another 45 minutes spent on those things would have been 45 minutes well spent, not “45 minutes of padding”. As it is, the film feels like a set piece in the second act of a bigger movie… and the resolution, which reveals the larger conspiracy, feels like the Cliff’s Notes and doesn’t have time to do itself justice. Now, that could be construed as a good thing, if it left me saying “I want more” the way a kick-ass trailer leaves me wanting more… but it moreso kind of left me saying “is that all”, which can’t be a good thing.
    >>> It’s understood that 42 minutes is long enough for talky character driven shorts to investigate subplots and characters… because they’re not obligated to sketch out extensive fictional universes, nor set up and execute long complex action sequences. Because Enigma is foremost obligated to do these actiony things, it is forced to shortchange those other aspects of its story, which – once you see the film – you’ll understand it’s also obligated to execute.

The conclusion: Enigma largely hits on all its production value cylinders. It’s an ambitious story, set in a familiar but capable sci-fi universe, that’s well executed and cinematic in scope. It should have been a feature so that it had the narrative time to work out its storytelling shortcomings, and had the post production time to further refine its largely satisfying effects. It’s worth seeing, and I hope it works as a calling card for this group to throw its effort into something bigger.

Thanks, Jason, for sending me the screener. Much appreciated, and best of luck.

Go to the Enigma Website or YouTube channel to learn more.

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6 thoughts on “enigma – epic sci fi on a budget

  1. [...] FOLLOW UP: I’ve seen the movie. Here’s my review. [...]

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  3. Amanda says:

    “Is that Enigma or Firefly?” or Blake’s 7. It’s a short film the purpose is to get you seen.

  4. Amanda says:

    Maybe Enigma was a victim of the cultural influence of Joss Whedon, or maybe it was an homage, but its basic setup felt unoriginal.

    Have to remember that Joss paid homage with Firefly with Blake’s 7. Same with JMS and many other scifi series.

    • crankydog says:

      Ah, it has gotten them seen… they were at 2009’s Shriekfest and well received. They’ll get attention from the quality of the project, no doubt. And yes, nothing wrong with making an homage, it’s a time honored tradition… and especially nice when, as I said above, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with that which it homages.

  5. crankydog says:

    I’ve been told by some that my review was overly harsh. But I hope people can see my overall appreciation of the project.

    I pointed out that it was ambitious, cinematic, the FX worked well, the makeup and audio and action were good, and that the performances and the genre nods were good.

    The things I felt fell short were that it felt familiar, but I also said that could be considered a good thing. I didn’t love the casting (but had no problem with performances – important differentiation). And that’s admittedly subjective… I’m not necessarily right. :)

    The geography didn’t work for me, but that’s partly out of their hands… they adopted an existing set. And some of my issues were really picayunish and scifi geeky.

    I didn’t like the alien but that’s subjective.

    And finally, I said it was too short, and that the story deserved more time.

    I’ll stand by my review… but hope its intention comes across.

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