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Column: Guess what? Sci-fi films can be artful, funny – and Irish

Irish film isn’t best known for its sci-fi storylines. Writer-director Alan Brennan explains how over came prejudices about the genre to fulfil his dream of bringing his Irish sci-fi rom-com, EARTHBOUND, to the silver screen.

Alan Brennan

I GREW UP on sci-fi. Star Wars, ET, Superman… these were the movies that made me want to make movies. As a boy I always wondered why these stories never happened in Ireland. Why did Superman have to crash land in Kansas? Why did ET get stranded in California? Sure, Luke Skywalker lived in a galaxy far, far away but he, Han Solo and Princess Leia were definitely from planet America. Why couldn’t movies like these be made here, I wondered? Naïve is not the word.

I think the first explanation I got was that Hollywood made trash, frankly, and with our tradition of world-class literature and tragic history, the stories most socially relevant and artistically-worthy rarely featured aliens or ray-guns or kick-ass spaceships that could do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. We were serious storytellers. They were peddling cheap popcorn and sticky candyfloss, tasty while on your tongue but devoid of any real merit.

Sci-fi isn’t trash – many are classic stories, artfully told

I didn’t buy it. Hollywood did make trash, it’s fair to say, but it also made Star Wars – my favourite film (still!). Jaws wasn’t trash either, I was sure. And Close Encounters, Raiders, Empire and Jedi? Classic stories beautifully, artfully told. Right? “But they’re not reality” I was assured. This was a bad thing. We do reality, they do make-believe, and make-believe is inherently inferior. I didn’t buy that either.

So if it’s not because Irish films are simply more worthy, and are obliged to reflect our historical tragedies or economic miseries (admittedly to occasionally brilliant effect), then what is it? Why don’t we make these kinds of movies? Well, money doesn’t just make the world go round, it builds sets, sews costumes and gives serious CG polish to the sight of New York (not Dublin!) swallowed by earthquakes and tidal waves. We don’t have the cash, so we can’t create the spectacle.  We can’t compete, so why try? And wouldn’t it be better to play down the whole liquidity problem and instead suggest that we are somehow better off being unable to render anything vaguely fantastical? Sure sci-fi and fantasy are just silly nonsense anyway. Films are supposed to be about reality. Yep. Reality. Got it.

Now, I wouldn’t be fool enough to say that things have completely changed since the ’80s, that computer-generated images of cinematic quality can be created in someone’s bedroom (although they can), or that advances in digital technology have levelled the playing field with Hollywood (they haven’t). But we can do a lot more now. We can record film-quality images on memory cards at a fraction of the cost of celluloid. We can edit feature films on laptops. And if I want to depict a scene in which a national monument turns into a projectile, I can (so long as I promise not to do it too often). It’s hardly cheap, but it’s far more affordable than it used to be.

These kinds of movies don’t get made in Ireland… or do they?

So, the time was right, it seemed, for me to pitch my idea for a story about a young man living a lonely, mundane life in Dublin who may in fact be an alien hiding on earth from intergalactic bounty hunters… or who may be deluded (“tune in next week to find out!” as the cheesy old sci-fi serials used to say). My hopes were low. These kinds of movies didn’t get made in Ireland after all.

I hoped I’d been clever – the story wasn’t dependent on expensive visual effects (they would be sparingly used for, hopefully, maximum impact), wasn’t riddled with sci-fi gobbledygook, had more than a few scenes I was confident were laugh-out-loud funny, and presented at its core a sweet and accessible love-story about two out-of-place people finding each other and carving out a relationship in difficult circumstances. But it definitely wasn’t reality. Sure, it had a message, if you were looking for one, and theme and subtext and character-arcs and all that stuff high-brow connoisseurs look for, but it was essentially a fun romp designed to put big smiles on people’s faces. They were never going to go for that, I assured myself.

But they did. Nobody seemed deterred by the imagery I intended to depict, or the weird devices I described, or the lashings of geeky sci-fi reference I couldn’t help but throw in. It turned out that they just really liked the characters and the story. It put big smiles on their faces. Shows what I know.

And now today, 15 March, EARTHBOUND goes on national release. I know Irish films are a tough sell but I can’t help but get my hopes up.  Audiences who’ve seen it so far have walked out grinning wide. I’d love to see the same look on more faces – but it won’t be easy. People are sceptical, and I don’t blame them. I mean, surely this Irish sci-fi rom-com (huh?) can’t be as much fun as the trashy Hollywood candy-floss flavoured popcorn playing next door, can it? After all, we don’t make films like that in this country. Or do we?

Tune in next week to find out!

Alan Brennan graduated from Dublin institute of Technology in 2000 with a BSc in Media Arts. Alan is lives in Dublin with his wife and son, and developing his next feature Before Midnight, a supernatural thriller, with support from the Irish Film Board.

EARTHBOUND opens 15 March across Ireland. Dublin: CineworldIMC Dun LaoghaireIMC TallaghtMovies@DundrumMovies@SwordsODEON CoolockODEON Point Village. Regional: Movies@GoreyMayo Movie WorldSGC DungarvanODEON WaterfordODEON Limerick.

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Alan Brennan

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