J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Somnus: Space is Dangerous and Confusing

In space, nobody can hear you scratch your head in confusion. That is rather fortunate for this science fiction debut, which seems to be missing several key connective scenes. Alas, it may well be an example of vision outstripping budget constraints. At least Chris Reading scores some style points during the course of Somnus (trailer here), which opens today in select cities.

This will be Harry Emerson’s final mission as a space freighter captain, so we know what that means. Obviously he is doomed (apparently along with the entire human race), but he is so determined to return to Earth, he will do everything strictly according to policy to deny his employers any pretext for extending his service. His lieutenant Charles Finch has all the ambition he lacks, but they mostly get along. They both find Rupert the engineer a little odd, but he seems to have a rapport with Meryl, the ship’s HAL 9000-like computer.

Meryl has been acting a bit erratic lately, but everyone seems to be reassured by the openness of her quirks. They do not know for a fact she caused the death of Paula, a late crew member we never really get to meet, but deep down all three harbor their suspicions. Of course it is hard to stay in denial when the space residue hits the fan. Unfortunately, the crew goes from the frying pan into the fire when Meryl forces them down on the asteroid Somnus for repairs. The woodland scenery is rather pleasant, but the locals are not very hospitable.

Somnus was clearly conceived as a big picture sf epic, but there are large gaping holes in its canvas, starting with the non sequitur prologue, in which a British scientist is entrusted with an apocalyptic secret in 1952 that is never subsequently referenced. We are told full scale galactic Armageddon also happens off camera, so we can probably assume the double-secret Macguffin fell into the wrong hands, but seriously, work with us here. As a result, Reading’s intended takeaways remain murky at best.

On the other hand, the practical effects rendered in Somnus should please old school enthusiasts. Tp his credit, Reading conveys a vivid sense of the freighter’s claustrophobic clamminess. He also gets good work from his primary cast, especially Marcus McMahon as the decent but increasingly detached Emerson and Rohit Gokani as the colorful yet down-to-earth Rupert. Meryl Griffiths is also quite effective as the scoldy, unpredictable voice of her computer namesake.

Patrons of independent science fiction in the tradition of the Fantasia festival will go into Somnus wanting to like it and most likely leave frustrated that it did not click for them. There just seems to be stuff missing from it. It might just be another misadventure from the indie filmmaking trenches. Yet, there is something about it that lingers in the back of your head, so we’d really like to see Reading take another swing for the fences. Hardcore genre fans might want to support Somnus just for the sake of what could come next, but it is an ambitious failure. It opens today (9/9) in select theaters and notably screens next Wednesday (9/14) at the Sioux Falls Arts Council, with Reading taking audience Q&A, before its VOD release on October 4th.

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