The Sundance Film Festival is boldly going where independent directors rarely travel: into the realm of science fiction.
This year's festival includes three movies with sci-fi themes - not a huge percentage considering Sundance has 118 feature-length films, but significant considering there are usually none.
"It never gets made in the independent arena," festival director Geoffrey Gilmore said. Besides the three that made the cut, festival organizers had three other strong sci-fi movies they considered, he said.
The three playing the 11-day festival: French director Sophie Barthes' "Cold Souls," starring Paul Giamatti in a tale of a man who loses his spiritual mojo to a Russian smuggling operation trafficking in human souls; British filmmaker Duncan Jones' "Moon," with Sam Rockwell as a lonely contract worker running a helium-mining operation on the lunar surface; and Japanese director Kanji Nakajima's "The Clone Returns Home," about a deceased astronaut whose clone struggles through a crisis of memory and identity.
Science fiction has traditionally meant big studio productions, but the Sundance sci-fi crop, like most independent films, focuses on characters and provocative ideas.
"I'm a big science-fiction fan, so I like the idea that people would be making more lower-budget science-fiction films," said Giamatti, playing a variation of himself in "Cold Souls," an actor named Paul Giamatti who feels so dragged down by his gloomy soul that he signs up for a service to put it in storage so he can muddle through a stage production of "Uncle Vanya."
Giamatti's soul winds up stolen and implanted in a Russian soap-opera actress who's looking to boost her career.
The film is mostly based in the real world, with its main prop a hulking soul-extraction device that resembles a bloated MRI machine.
"I prefer the lower-budgeted science-fiction movies where you have actual locations," Giamatti said. "I find it far more interesting and evocative to look at than a lot of the CGI stuff."
"Moon" is set on the dark side of Earth's satellite, where Rockwell plays the lone inhabitant, his only pal a clunky but efficient robot voiced by Kevin Spacey.
The film features a bit of CGI effects, but most of it was shot in-camera, with a full-sized set of the moon base interior and old-fashioned miniatures used for structures and vehicles on the lunar surface.
"I think in-camera effects are coming back full-throttle," said Rockwell, who had been looking for another science-fiction project after co-starring in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." I think people are getting a little sick of the glossiness of CGI and want to see old-school effects like they used to."
And sci-fi is a safe way to comment on present times.
"The last eight years were so surreal in this country politically that as a filmmaker and an artist, you try to escape and find ways to do stories that don't remind you of the day-to-day life," Barthes said. "So for me, science fiction is a fantastic tool for pointing in a satirical way about what is wrong with this society without doing a social-realist movie."
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