Sci-Fi Short: Citizen in the Temple

citizen2017.8: Citizen in the Temple (2015) – Amazon VOD

I have a feeling this review might take longer to write than it took to watch. I’m beginning to think there’s much more on Amazon VOD than immediately apparent, as I stumbled upon this short movie by accident. Citizen in the Temple is a short (25 mins) sci-fi film by Jason Huls, and is I believe a MFA thesis film, so its strictly an amateur piece with a very low budget (it didn’t make its target goal of $7,500 far as I can tell, but as it got made it clearly broke even some other way or got made for less).

Its probably best to judge it as a demo reel, or a proof-of-concept piece; “look, I can handle actors, I can stage an action sequence, I can handle effects, I can handle prosthetics,” that kind of thing. As such, it pretty much works. As a piece of storytelling though, it doesn’t really hold together, and its a bit unfair to audiences to tout it as a finished short film, because it doesn’t feel like it- it feels exactly like a demo reel.

Which is frustrating, as even with its meagre resources and limited running time, if it was scripted as a play, as a piece of intellectual ideas or a character piece, it might have worked very well. Too much of the running time is wasted on cgi effects shots that would have looked poor in Babylon 5‘s day, instead of just shooting an actor on a basic set emoting about his situation and convictions. With low-budget stuff like this you can’t compete with the ‘big boys’ and cgi stuff like greenscreen sets etc is just boring and cartoony when its done on the cheap, stunts and fight scenes can’t help but feel nasty and rough, but what you can do is ideas and character, that stuff costs you nothing.

Hell, I could have polished this script overnight myself. This could have been good, but the script wasn’t really about telling a tight, focussed dramatic character-piece, it was about setting up visuals and sequences to demo technique and ability.So it is what it is, and works for what it was intended to be. I guess. I feel like I’m being unfair being critical.

As it is, its all pretty vague, throw-the-audience-into-it stuff. We are on another planet, resources are scarce, and it’s basically a 1984-like totalitarian state with rebels trying to feed the poor and starving who are cast out beyond the city walls in the wilderness. Citizens in the city are ruled by the Consortium, its laws enforced by Templars, Jedi-like priests who employ Terminator-like drone cyborgs to do their dirty work. Its all very much like Rush’s prog-rock epic 2112 from their 1976 album, with plenty of Star Wars and Matrix references thrown in, not to mention the nods to Blade Runner in the city shots… its all very derivative. I guess you could play a drinking game watching this taking a shot with every ‘homage’ but you’d likely be too drunk to see the end.

Of course, I’m being wholly unfair. It was likely shot for less than the cost of a new car in very little time with most of the props and costumes made by keen amateurs, and it’s obviously a stepping-stone/demo reel for everyone involved both in front and behind the camera. Its short, and its free (on Amazon Prime) so whats the problem? Well, the old Twilight Zone tv series showed decades ago that decent sci-fi could be done in 25 minutes with a pretty-much zero budget. This short film fails to heed the lessons of all those many Twilight Zone episodes. Its all there; how to make a thoughtful, intriguing sci-fi short. You don’t need to stumble at the flash/bang/wow. Keep it to the ideas. Imagination can do the rest.