The Un-Gone is a near-perfect hard sci-fi short. Unlike recent crowd pleasers The Raven or The Gift, it eschews flashy visuals in favor of providing entertainment that is thought-provoking and like much great sci-fi, disturbing. In further contrast to those films, reliant on chases and characters who are ciphers, it also happens to possess a recognizable narrative with definitive closure. At a lithe 8 minute runtime, it is truly a model of tight short film storytelling. I like action spectaculars and visual treats well enough so I do not wish to come across as a snob, yet it saddens me that The Un-Gone, due to its flat visuals is very unlikely to replicate the success of those aforementioned films, for this story adheres to a quintessential short film virtue—it hones in on an idea and follows it to its natural conclusion—along the way seductively imagining a dark edge to a cherished sci-fi concept.
The concept in question is the existence of a “transporter”, that most desirable piece of tech to have filtered into the public consciousness via Star Trek. You know, “Beam me up Scotty!” and all that. In The Un-Gone the tranporter is real and the technology has been commercialized, yet apparently not made error-proof. At the start, a young married couple, Mr. Salinger and Maya, are about to take a trip to Britain thanks to “Kuala Lumpur Transit”. Maya is a little bit nervous about the impending departure, but her husband does his best to reassure her, talking about their future together, and ultimately broaching the topic of having a baby together before they eventually depart.
The woman is the one nervous about the procedure, but she makes it through without incident. Ironically it the man who suffers the mishap. It is hard to not spoil an 8 minute short, so I will refrain from going further with recap, though if you are a fan of Prof. Krauss’ The Physics of Star Trek, you may have already guessed at the film’s developments. There is a delicious sensation though to your own gradual understanding of Mr. Salinger’s predicament in advance of the character’s. Hopefully you can catch it before the clunky exposition provided by the transit firm’s executive spells it out for you.
Sadly it is this stretch directly after the big reveal that proves to be the weakest, as it falls down on one of the great strengths of the early part of the film which is the writing. It is rather impressive the way in which writer/director Simon Bovey effortlessly establishes the characters of the couple early on while interspersing very natural lines into the dialogue that shed light on external factors. It has already been covered now, the ironic appeal of the man standing up for the transporter, unaware of how severely his faith is misplaced, however in that opening conversation other examples of excellent screenwriting exist, most notably the conversation about having a baby. Perhaps a baby is a bit of a blunt-force instrument—they are tremendous emotionally and metaphorically rich plot contrivances, but this talk perfectly establishes the couples tenderness towards each other, as well their shared optimism for the future. As an audience we feel an instant connection to the couple, played by Stephen Billington and Linette Beaumont, as they act out this delicate balance between anxiety for the trip and excitement for the future.
There is a confident efficacy to Bovey’s establishment of character but it is the small throw-away lines that do magic in placing those emotions the couple share in context. Their optimism is perhaps something that is rare in this future-world. Lines such as the husband suggesting that the couple “apply” for a baby, or the excited reactions involved when the white British-sounding male announces that he’s received an “immigration permit” to go to Birmingham, England seem to broadly sketch out that this world adheres to that model of an aggressively-controlled, dystopian British society that seems to be de rigeur for futuristic depictions of the country (V for Vendetta and Children of Men spring to mind, must be the cameras). Ultimately these details do not further the plot, but they provide the kind of nuance that turns an average movie good, and a good one great, by immersing an audience into a setting that is more fully realized.
Such nuance is less evident after the big reveal. One wonders if there isn’t a better way to unveil the film’s twist than by simply stating it. Furthermore, while understandably Mr. Salinger is in shock, he is awfully slow to come to grips with the situation at hand. It’s exceptionally funny when sci-fi fans nitpick small details as unrealistic in the midst of an altogether ludicrous landscape, but The Un-Gone is sufficiently demure in its brand of speculative fiction that it does niggle the mind to wonder if even in generic totalitarian futures people would really use technology such as a transporter without understanding how it works. Evidently Popular Science magazine has closed up shop in this alternate world.
Still, the concept is too good and the execution and tightness of the short from a strictly filmmaking perspective is too strong for the film to be derailed in any meaningful way by such quibbles. The film has been successful on the festival circuit, playing over 70 of them, which is how I managed to see it a couple of years back. It created a sufficient impression on me at the time that I have periodically found myself searching for it online since, and I am pleased to find that on repeat viewing my estimation of its quality remains the same.
With its sci-fi trappings, pleasing twist, and lean runtime, I really do think that the film is well-suited for the internet. However the film does lack the visual panache that internet fans seem to clamor for. The lighting is dull and flat in that peculiarly British way us Yanks can never seem to understand, muddying up the color palate, and while the the reliance on set design and practical effects is admirable, the setting is sparse and stagey. One wonders at the possibilities for a script this smart if only it were made now, in this era of super-cheap CG. Either way don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying this fine film and appreciating the strengths it possesses. Maybe if we all do, it will go viral all the same.
Read our Q&A with director, Simon Bovey, as he explains how and why he made The Un-Gone.