Saturday at the Derby Film Festival: The Red Turtle & Spaceship

by Elliot Davies

Red Turtle Derby Film Festival 2017

Two colourful dreamlike films. One soars majestically, the other sinks and stinks. One is gently life-affirming, the other is morally reprehensible. Can you guess which is which? The answer might surprise you!

The Red Turtle is a simple story of a young man who’s shipwrecked on a small island. The island has a large bamboo forest full of fruit, plenty of freshwater, ample fishing spots and no man-eating predators to speak of. It has everything he needs, but still he’s desperate to escape. The problem is, his every escape attempt is thwarted by a giant red turtle. He eventually has an opportunity to take his revenge, but his brutal actions have life-changing consequences.

This is a wordless tale that has the air of an ancient fable about it, something that’s been passed on from generation to generation. It feels like the sort of fable that’s changed a little with each subsequent retelling, the result being that whatever “point” the story might have had is now open to interpretation. There’s a lightness and a playfulness to it, but also a gravity that makes it captivating right from the start.

The Red Turtle is driven by certain fantastical events, and there’s several dreamy moonlit sequences. The boundary between sleeping and waking – and what’s real and what’s imagined – is ambiguous. Yet despite this it’s a tale that’s true to life, complete with daily frustrations, devastating unexpected events, and rich rewards for those who are able to persevere.

It’s a little front-loaded. After a peaceful first-half things speed up considerably. The film loses a little of its magic, but not so much that it loses its power. And it’s always beautiful to look at. Like the story itself, the animation is rich yet simple.

This is a collaboration between the European studio Wild Bunch, and the Japanese masters Studio Ghibli. It’s the first time Studio Ghibli has worked with a western director. As such, The Red Turtle doesn’t quite feel like a Studio Ghibli film. But that’s not to say that something’s missing. It’s just different – a transcendent surreal fable that must be judged on its own terms. And judged on its own terms, it’s beautiful.

Spaceship Derby Film Festival 2017

Spaceship is another dreamy film, but only to the extent that its narrative jumps all over the place. It’s a freewheeling British teen film about cyber goths, archaeology and alien abduction. It’s the most tedious film I’ve seen in a very long time.

I wanted to like it. It’s trying something new, it’s experimenting with non-traditional storytelling techniques, and it looks and sounds amazing. That it’s boring at best, and actively despicable at worst, is a huge disappointment.

It’s weird. Weird films are good. But self-consciously weird films are the absolute pits. And Spaceship is a film that’s delighted by its own weirdness. We’re invited to believe that the reason it makes no sense is because teenagers make no sense. There’s no point in looking for a “point” or a “message”, because teenagers seldom have a “point” to make or a “message” to convey.

A film that captured the chaos and confusion of teenhood would be perfectly watchable. But if this was really what Spaceship wanted to do, then really should have made at least a token effort to ensure that these teenagers acted like teenagers. They shouldn’t have stripped the world of all authority figures, and they shouldn’t have demonstrated, time and time again, that actions in this world have no consequences.

If you fill the screen with teenagers and attempt profundity, your creation runs the risk of being precious. And oh my gods, Spaceship is precious. It’s full of slow-motion footage of young adults doing their young adult things, with lots of indistinct shots of leaves, trees and colourful lights. Characters monologue endlessly about unicorns and vampires and zombies and feelings, and it all signifies NOTHING.

But remember! There’s no point to any of this because teenagers aren’t trying to make a point! So if we try to make sense of this jumble of colours and precious, precious monologues, we’re the ones who’re at fault!

The result is a churning mess of lurid colours and empty words with no beating heart. It’s a soulless husk of a film that wants to have it both ways: It demands that you take it seriously, but it revels in the idea that there’s nothing really to take seriously.

Spaceship Derby Film Festival 2017 1

Director Alex Taylor was on-hand to introduce the film and to field some questions afterwards. He all-but congratulated himself for making something so weird, and he spoke of his belief that films should be apolitical. In his opinion, I Daniel Blake was a failure because it didn’t result in a landslide Labour victory.

He’s seemingly oblivious to the fact that consciously removing all politics from your art is in itself a political statement; one that, in today’s world, is highly suspect.

Worse, Taylor had the audacity to claim that filmmakers who fill their films with things like plot, pacing, drama, conflict and emotional reactions are “lazy”. The implication was that Spaceship would have been weakened by this sort of nonsense. It was infuriating.

I don’t feel too bad for the young actors in Spaceship. A lot of people seem to like this film, so it’s not like they’ll be tainted by association. It’s just hard to comment on their performances given the weak material they had to work with. One of them, though, managed to create the single most irritating character I’ve ever seen onscreen. So…good work?

A good thing to take away from this that at least films this daring can still get funded and distributed. But beyond that, the only blessing is that Spaceship will date horribly.