SolReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/23/12 11:43:37
SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: "Sol" has a sci-fi-on-a-budget premise and filmmakers who look like they know how to stretch it, and while that's encouraging at the start, it quickly becomes clear that the things independent films often use to make up for it - clever writing and strong acting - are in perilously short supply. It's one thing to be marooned on a strange planet without food or water; being there without a sensible script is even more dangerous.The teens in this movie are on this planet for the "Sol Invictus" tournament, where cadets from various academies are sent to a strange world, with the first team to locate Earth's sun in the night sky winning top placements. Something has gone very wrong with the portal, and while one team has arrived more or less intact, the rest are represented by single members. The captain of the main team, Lee (Jake Brown), tells the rest they can follow him or see how they do on their own, an attitude which quickly wears on some of the singletons. They include Kit (Spenser Pollard), the "chronicler" carrying a camera around; Adrian (Aaron Kuban), who has competed and won before but was disqualified; and Eli (Caleb Courtney) & Tyl (Jake White), once close friends representing rival schools. After the party is attacked by the native life, the survivors meet up with a couple others - Lex (Sky King), an engineer from the infamously ruthless Scorpius Academy, and Howard (Tyler Thomas), a cook from Terra Prime.
The structure of Sol - rivals dropped into a situation where they must either work together or perish - is so basic that it would seem resistant to being screwed up, but writer/director Benjamin Carland seems to actively resist doing anything that seems like a logical action for the characters. He knows the basic path this story should follow, but uses a drunkard's walk to follow it: Characters will be able to get along and work together without apparent antipathy in one scene and then completely turn on each other in the next (or even within the same shot!), which inevitably leads to the character who has been banished from the tribe being needed three scenes later. They lie and keep life-threatening secrets for no good reason other than the plot's need for conflict. As a result, the conflict seldom seems natural - and in fact, sometimes the lack of conflict doesn't feel natural, like the filmmakers forgot that a character was a jerk and would likely be a jerk in this spot.
It doesn't help that the cast is very young and inexperienced. They've got little to work with, and putting together a half-dozen or so good young actors in North Carolina can't be easy, but these guys just aren't up to the task of adding life to forced lines or giving a character enough of a personality for them to add to a scene while in the background. They are, at least, relatively well-matched to their roles: Courtney and White sell familiarity with each other, Aaron Kuban's Adrian has the slight yet important edge in experience in wisdom he needs, and if Spenser Pollard's Kit is supposed to be an entitled brat, he hits that target. Sky King and Tyler Thomas often push their characters aggression or feelings of inferiority a bit hard, but they've got a moment or two each.
They're stuck in a plot that makes no sense, though. Half-ignore the casual comment about how water is rare, even though it's a trope that needs to die (especially since, if true, the planet's large supply of fresh water should be mentioned toward the end). The plot is a mess, with new arbitrary goals set multiple times as the story moves toward its finish, questions of how much survival training these kids have had, and more baseless assumptions and flat-out ridiculous actions (if something is afraid of light, why is there any need to lead it away from the portal which is glowing brighter than the noonday sun?). Carland and company may deserve the benefit of the doubt in certain situations; the cinematography and visual effects for one creature show enough technical skill that the "hunters" chasing the kids being almost wholly unseen except for one very long shot - not the one where they need to be an immediate looming threat - can't have been the original plan.Even if it does turn out that the filmmakers ran out of resources before the effects could be finished, that's not an excuse. Even if the hunters were amazingly cool monsters, stuff needs to make sense - the world, the plot, the characters. When it doesn't, and there rest of the movie doesn't have anything to stimulate the audience on a gut level, a movie like "Sol" can be a real face-palming chore to sit through.
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