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REACH FOR THE STARS
Dune Drifter (15)
Director: Marc Price
Screenplay: Marc Price
Starring: Phoebe Sparrow, Daisy Aitkens, Simon Dwyer-Thomas
Review: RJ Bland
Making a film isn't an easy task at the best of times. Especially when you are working with a very small budget. Covid-19 has made it even more of an uphill task, with productions both big and small being affected or in a lot of cases, postponed or cancelled outright. However, as Jeff Goldblum once said in a certain dinosaur movie, life finds a way. Those involved in film, especially at the indie level, are not only a creative bunch but also well versed in problem solving and thinking outside the box and some of them aren't prepared to let a little thing like a global pandemic get in the way. In fact, some have used it to their advantage – Rob Savage's techno horror Host being a perfect example. It kept things intimate and self-contained and kept locations to a minimum. That's they key surely? Keep things low-key and small in scale and a bit more grounded. Try telling that to Director Marc Price, whose latest film Dune Drifter, is entirely set in space and on an alien planet...
Dune Drifter begins in deep space with a collection of brilliantly named characters (stuff like Drekk, Danforth, Kanner) preparing to engage in an orbital battle with a fleet of alien ships. When they arrive on the scene, things are catastrophically worse than they had anticipated and they are eventually picked off one by one until there is only one ship left containing two female pilots, Adler (Phoebe Sparrow) and Yaren (Daisy Aitkens). It's not long before they come under fire and a direct hit sees them leave the battle and career towards an unknown planet, yet they miraculously manage to crash land the ship on the planet's rocky surface. However their problems are far from over. The ship is damaged and unable to take off, one of the two pilots is badly injured and they are unable to contact any friendlies to come and rescue them. As the only fit and able pilot, Adler is forced to try and tend to her injured colleague whilst trying to formulate an escape plan. She needs to act pretty sharpish too as her spacesuit only has enough oxygen left for a couple of days. Oh and then there's the strange growling sounds that begin when darkness falls....
There is often a fine line that separates effective low budget sci-fi and low grade schlock. It's a genre where by definition, the story itself is always going to venture into fantasy and speculation but audiences know what they are signing up for. It's not how far fetched the ideas are that cause a film to fall flat – it's how they are conveyed and if they are presented in a way that feels genuine, then that's half the battle won. It's not even about budget either. Films like The Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity were made for peanuts and their success was predominantly because they felt real. However, in those instances it was admittedly about what was not seen. It's very cheap to not show something and leave it to the imagination. However, in science fiction – when you are trying to depict something more specific, it's not always that simple. Fortunately features like Dune Drifter show that with some craft and ingenuity, there are no limits to what you can achieve.
Utilising a number of old school optical techniques (including the use of miniatures), it charmingly – and successfully – manages to create impressive renditions of both space and alien terra firma. The space battle scenes are wonderfully reminiscent of the genre in its 80s heyday (Star Wars, Star Trek) and instead of feeling dated, it fits perfectly with the retro aesthetic of the ship interiors and the costumes. The choice to use Iceland as the setting of the alien planet is also something of a masterstroke, with the vast flat expanses of rock and sand and low light levels really feeling like another world. The location also lends itself to some beautiful vistas too and cinematographer Noel Darcy fully takes advantage of the arresting yet demanding environment. Extra points have to be awarded as well for making it a social distance friendly film too – from the seating arrangements in the spaceships to the fact that everyone pretty much wears a helmet for most of the film!
Of course, visuals alone are not enough to keep you engaged and although Dune Drifter doesn't offer up anything groundbreakingly new in terms of its plotting, it effectively manages to build enough tension and intrigue to keep you fully invested. This could have been a straight up sci-fi drama, ala The Martian, and focus its attention on the day to day logistics of trying to survive on another planet (growing potatoes, yay!) However, there's a reason that this film is playing at the UK's biggest horror festival (Frightfest) next month; because it's not just the elements that our lead has to contend with, there are other more organic threats she has to worry about. Dune Drifter introduces these threats cautiously and is controlled in the way it reveals them. These glimpses and flashes work well in the middle section of the film but those hoping for and expecting things to get cranked up a notch will not be disappointed with an action-packed and energetic last act. Running through all of this is an assured and grounded performance by Phoebe Sparrow, who does a solid job as the centre point amongst the intergalactic thrills.
Dune Drifter does take some time to get going and the first thirty minutes or so are perhaps a bit bloated and could have been truncated a little. Exposition and character building are fine (and necessary) but some of this feels a little perfunctory when we get down to the nitty gritty and the result is that the second act feels a tad stunted. The space scenes are engaging but they aren't as effective as those set on solid ground and you kind of wish that we had a little more time to explore the promise of the premise.
However, these gripes aside, it remains something of an indie success story. To make a sci-fi feature as ambitious as this at a time like this and for it to actually work – is nothing short of a miracle.
Dune Drifter is proof that big ideas can be realised even on a small budget.
Tense, beautifully shot and inventive – it oozes retro charm and should act as an inspiration for indie film-makers everywhere.
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