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Shadows on the Wall
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by Jay Seaver

"No 'Primer', but thankfully not 'Sol' either."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: There's a vibe to "Shadows on the Wall" that suggests filmmaker Benjamin Carland is trying to make a "Primer", not just something with big ideas but a small cast and budget, but a tactile feel. Something where all the exposed workings and dense terminology gives the movie credibility, and a feeling of being slightly overwhelmed is something to be pushed through rather than discouraged by. There are moments when he's pointed in the right direction and the audience feels the intended thrill, and if they outnumbered the ones that just didn't make sense, he would have made a fairly impressive bit of low-budget sci-fi.

He starts out with two roommates at a smallish college: Palmer Marshall (Chris Kauffmann) is a socially stunted introvert who books nonfunctional assemblies out of spare parts, and his cousin Chase (Tim Fox), there to have fun more than learn. Despite Palmer's apparent ability with electronics, he needs help to pass his freshman math classes, which is why his parents hire Alice (Nicole Lee Durant), who eventually joins him on working on his latest device, which Chase helps bankroll. And while it doesn't do what Palmer intended, what it does do is extraordinary on its own.

When Carland gets to that point, when the extraordinary starts to happen, it's hard to deny that the movie works. The undergraduate genius making a breakthrough isn't as popular a trope as it once was - the process of science has become less mysterious and the tools more specialized - but it's still a story that strikes a chord because everyone would love to discover something that is less hidden than in a place nobody has looked before. Carland handles the moments of discovery well, speeding things up as the characters learn more, always keeping the next thing tantalizingly close and making sure that, as big as it is, it's something the audience can grasp.

There is a lot of flat-out stupid material getting there, unfortunately. Start with Palmer's claim that nobody would be interested in what he's working on, like wireless power transmission or communications that can't be intercepted by anybody with an antenna has no commercial value whatsoever. That's the sort of thing that might actually bring in the half-baked conspiracy material that pops up toward the end almost out of convenience more than as a means to create tension. There's a lot of worrying about a specific contest, like the work will just vanish if they miss the deadline. We're also supposed to just take Palmer's brilliance as read, despite hearing that he's never actually built anything that works and knowing that he apparently needs tutoring with "math" despite apparently working on a project that requires at least some comprehension of advanced physics.

And, yes, it is left just as general as "math". That's something that can and will be aggravating to a lot of science fiction fans, because this is a movie that spends a lot of time on characters throwing jargon back and forth as a means to advance the story and solve problems, but doesn't have the sort of verisimilitude to sound right when the audience actually pays attention to the words as opposed to the attitude. To make the Primer comparison again, that had dense technobabble, but listening closely and unpacking it rewarded the viewer, while doing the same with Shadows on the Wall mostly reveals that it uses some of the right words but doesn't get much further. It's more frustrating than some movies which are even more egregious, because those tend to quickly move on to something that the filmmakers do better rather than give the viewer a good look at the bits that don't make sense.

Among the cast, Chris Kauffmann has to bear the brunt of this as Palmer, doing his best with a ton of lines meant to make him sound smart that don't quite fit along with having to sell his character's frequently absurd actions. Kauffmann does take the exaggerated characteristics given him and craft something relatively believable out of it, which is probably the best he can do with what he's given. Nicole Lee Durant still has an uphill battle convincing us that Alice would find him terribly compelling, but she does okay, as does Tim Fox as a thin but useful third wheel.

All told, "Shadows on the Wall" is not a very good movie, but it is leaps and bounds better than Carland's previous effort "Sol", and for a guy making films this far outside of the system, improvement is tremendously encouraging. There are good bits here, encouraging and genuinely exciting moments. Maybe with a little more practice, he and his collaborators will be able to further hone the skills they do have.

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originally posted: 03/10/15 15:19:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2015 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/21/16 C Chris Niederhauser Great little Indie Sci-Fi film leading the viewer to a Pathos/Horror ending. 5 stars
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Directed by
  Benjamin Carland

Written by
  Benjamin Carland

  Chris Kauffmann
  Tim Fox
  Nicole Lee Durant

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