A machine surveys Los Angeles.
It's a dystopian tale we've all become familiar with. Downtown Los Angeles has descended into post-apocalyptic chaos. The machines are taking over. Our protagonist is gritty and conflicted, but somehow we want to root for him or her. This is the dark side of the Janus-faced city, which at the same time carries associations with palm trees and beautiful sunsets.
LUNAR, a short film by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Tyson Wade Johnston, imagines a Los Angeles in 2057 overrun by surveillance and police robots. In this world, the convicted are sent to prison not on a remote island or another country but to the lunar surface itself. Our hero is already under suspicion for wearing a hoodie and thus obscuring his identity from facial recognition software. And when he steals a loaf of bread, his life changes: he's sent to the Moon to serve out a prison sentence, and it seems that he's not even been given a chance to say goodbye or receive due process.
There's a lot of middle ground that isn't covered in LUNAR that I wish was present; it feels like a feature film squeezed too tightly into a short film format. But the video has been making the rounds on the web because visually it's just stunning. The special effects are impactful without being overbearing, and they're seamlessly integrated into the story. And more importantly, LUNAR touches on social/political realities that we can relate to.
Facial recognition technology visualized in LUNAR.
As Johnston noted in an interview with The Creators Project, he is influenced by a wide variety of social issues, including “government surveillance, police brutality, population control, unemployment rates, technology indulgence and large corporation corruptions.” This sets his short film work squarely in the realm of the science fiction tradition, which has so often used the future as a vehicle to comment on our present.
“The inception of this story was essentially taken from the Australian penal colonies of the 18th and 19th centuries,” said Johnston, who hails from Australia. “Repeating human history is a great tool for writing Science-Fiction, because the audience isn’t allowed to call bullshit. It’s human nature. We do not learn from history.”
Indeed, so much of LUNAR is shot in present-day downtown Los Angeles; there's no need for special effects for the dystopic feel. In this part of the city, where the wealth gap is at its highest in nearly a century and even The Onion has commented on its history of police brutality, it's not difficult to imagine that in 2057 the only thing that's changed is the technology.
LUNAR is the only the latest of Johnston's popular short film work. SEED, which he released a year ago, imagined humankind's colonization of a new planet, while EXIST, released in 2011, tells the story of two everymen swept up in the planet's first encounter with extraterrestrial life. While science fiction films continue to push new technologies and formats on the big screen, he's been working with small teams and low-cost technologies to create landscapes that not long ago would have been out of reach for an independent filmmaker.
Character sketches and models developed by Precog Studios were used for pre-visualization and, later, post production.
“Knowledge isn’t valuable anymore,” Johnston noted when asked about science fiction opportunities for indie filmmakers. “I taught myself everything I know through Google, YouTube tutorials, DVD commentaries and special features.... “Listening to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner commentary is like watching Picasso paint.” This is science fiction in a world of boundless information and low-cost resources obtained through loans and scrounged together; he explains a lot of his process in a behind the scenes article. There are many economic and systemic barriers to creating sci-fi—filmmaking is still a very expensive art form and distribution often relies on powerful gatekeepers—but the barriers are going down each day.
EXIST is a great example of this. It takes a low-budget feel, as it's shot mostly in the form of self-documentary by the two characters. But that is part of what makes it effective: it's at once a story of a world of self-documentation, combined with Johnston's emergent explorations of creating space ships above the LA skyline. It's not trying to be more than that. It gives us a glimpse into a moment, the same way we experience so many world changing events in the 21st century: through snippets of 6 minute videos posted onto YouTube. The subtle insertion of sci-fi experiences makes it all the more believable.
“Most of [LUNAR] was shot with just myself, my cinematographer and our actor(s),” said Johnston. “Outside of the shuttle soundstage, there was no crew or equipment. The possibilities are endless - it’s just an idea, meets imagination, meets persistence to execute. Anything can be done, even on the smallest scale.”
For more information on Johnston you can check here.