What do short films have to do with science fiction? On the surface, not a whole lot. The batch of ten short movies nominated for the 2009 Oscars - five live action, five animated - contain a few fantasy-based pieces that genre fans should warm to . . .

But on the whole, they tend to follow the Oscar playbook: stodgy, respectable dramas focused on "important" social subjects without engendering a great deal of controversy. This is a pity because the format as it stands works extremely well for science fiction and horror. Consider the rabbit-punch effectiveness of stories by Richard Matheson or Ambrose Bierce and how powerful an adaptation could be when compressed into a ten-minute running length. Filmmaker fans of H.P. Lovecraft picked up on the trick long ago, producing brilliant (and comparatively short) pieces like Andrew Leman's The Call of Cthulhu and Andrew Vanek's The Yellow Sign. All that comes on top of one of the most beloved piece of science fiction ever: The Twilight Zone, which produced some genuine masterpieces of the genre in under half an hour.

In light of that, this year's Oscar-nominated shorts - playing theatrically in limited release in the U.S. and available on iTunes on February 17 - make for interesting viewing, if only to illustrate that film need not be limited to traditional two-hour or one-hour blocks. The animation, in particular, demonstrates the breadth and width of the medium, and ways to render the truly fantastic in terms which no live action version could produce. Of the five, the best is also the most overtly genre-based: "Presto," another bit of genius from Pixar studios which ran in front of WALL*E last summer. It entails a battle of wills between a 19th Century magician and his very hungry stage rabbit, denied a carrot before a big performance. Their battleground is the magician's top hat, connected to a magic wizard's cap through which the magician can pull anything (and the rabbit, for his part, can send anything). The brief running time -conveyed wordlessly - presents a firehouse of truly inventive props, pratfalls and conceptual comedy that aptly reflects Pixar's standing as the smartest purveyors of popular entertainment in the world.

"One look at Benjamin Button can tell you that longer isn't always better!"

Three of the remaining four pieces also touch on the fantastic, albeit more obliquely. "This Way Up," from Britain, recounts the Herculean efforts of a pair of morticians to get their client's body to its appointed destination… even when the Grim Reaper himself plants a carnival of lost souls in their way. Japan's "House of Small Cubes" presents a very different image than the anime for which that country is known: a shrinking city swallowed by an ever-rising tide and an old man who refuses to leave by building room after room on top of each other. France's "Oktapodi" is more overtly cartoonish: a pair of octopi - true lovers, apparently - engaged in a modestly funny duel with the seafood delivery boy who tries to separate them. Only the last piece - Russia's "Lavatory Lovestory" - departs from such notions in its rather pedestrian tale of a forlorn toilet cleaner and her exasperatingly secret admirer.

The live-action shorts - running on a separate program and presumably available for individual download after the 17th - are of much less interest to genre fans, though there are some fine examples of classic drama in the mix. The topper is Germany's "On the Line," about a plainclothes security guard at a large department store who pines for the pretty gal in the book department. When he fails to halt an attack on an apparent rival , he's ironically bound closer to her even as unspoken guilt pulls them apart. Its strength stems from the subtlety of its message, and from the characters who attain a heartfelt reality in a very brief period of time.

The remaining four depend on simple hot-button messages delivered with varying degrees of effectiveness: racism ("New Boy's" African transplant struggling to feel at home in his new Irish school ), intolerance ("Pig's" Danish hospital patient yearning for a fanciful painting despite the objections of his Muslim roommate), the Holocaust ("Toyland's" German mother who feeds her son a lie about where their Jewish neighbors have gone), and death ("Manon on the Asphalt," the weakest of the entire lot, which details a woman's final thoughts after an accident). Their obvious efforts to grapple with serious subject matter attain a certain symmetry here and there, but only fitfully make use of the brevity which constitutes their primary strength.

Nor should that strength be forgotten by genre fans, who too often have to rely on the static framework of theatrical running times and every-hour-on-the-hour television programming. Films like these can convey fear, wonder, spectacle and the philosophical paradoxes that make sci-fi and horror so great, in ways which longer films may bloat or distort. Which isn't to say that there's anything wrong with two-hour movies… only that movies as a whole should not be held to such a rigid framework. One look at Benjamin Button - darling of the nominee process, with a 160-minute running time tortured out of a single short story - can tell you that longer isn't always better. The package on display in this year's shorts program illuminates the full depth of cinema's capacity… science fiction or otherwise.

- Rob Vaux


2008, 180 minutes (two programs, 90 minutes apiece)
Directed by: Konstantin Bronzit, Kunio Kato, Julien Bocabeile, Francois-Xavier Chanioux Reto Caffi, Dorte Hogh, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier, Emud Mokhberi, Doug Sweetland, Adam Foulkes, Alan Smith, Elizabeth Marre, Olivier Pont, Jochen Alexander Freydank, and Steph Green.




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