The slopes are empty and the theaters are full in Park City, Utah, which can only mean one thing - it's time for Sundance. The 30th anniversary of the festival kicked off on January XX with 121 feature films, plus a plethora of shorts, panels and events. Nestled mong the gritty relationship dramas, star-studded character pieces and international gems are always at least several films that riff on or are inspired by science and technology. Here's a look at this year's crop, which includes stories across a wide variety of genres ranging from romantic drama to a Western to documentary film.
**Descriptions for the films and events have been taken from the Sundance Film Festival Guide.
Screening in Premieres
Dir: Mike Cahill
Ian Gray, a PhD student studying molecular biology with a specialty in eye evolution, leaves his lab to go to a party and has an intense, but fleeting, encounter with a mysterious, masked model who escapes into the night. With only a picture of her stunning and iconic eyes, he tracks her down, and they fall in love. Their fundamentally different beliefs about life only serve to intensify their connection, and they vow to spend forever together. Years later, Ian and his lab partner, Karen, make a stunning discovery with profound existential implications. He must risk his life's work and his family to travel across the world to find the truth behind what he has found and what it may mean.
Writer/director Mike Cahill returns to Sundance (Another Earth screened at the Festival in 2011) with a new, enthralling exploration of the connective tissue between love and science. He casts Brit Marling again, as well as Michael Pitt and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and utilizes their onscreen chemistry to vigorous effect. As emotionally moving as it is intellectually stimulating, I Origins solidifies Cahill’s position as a distinctive cinematic voice.
Screening in Premieres
Dir: Jake Paltrow
Water is running out. Land has withered into something wretched. The dust has settled on a lonely, barren planet. Not long from now, the hardened survivors of the loss of Earth’s precious resources scrape and struggle. Ernest Holm, played by Michael Shannon, lives on this harsh frontier with his children, Jerome and Mary. He defends his farm from bandits, works the supply routes, and hopes to rejuvenate the soil. But Mary's boyfriend, Flem Lever, played by Nicholas Hoult, has grander designs. He wants Ernest's land for himself, and he means to get it.
Grounded by pitch-perfect performances, writer/director Jake Paltrow's sophomore effort reverently strips down genre tropes, inventively layering Greek tragedy over an ethereal narrative that’s steeped in the values of the American West. With a visceral application of cinematic and theatrical shorthand, and a passionate storytelling sense, Young Ones quickly establishes a distinct, fully realized universe and never lets go.
ALIVE INSIDE: A STORY OF MUSIC & MEMORY
Screening in U.S. Documentary Competition
Dir: Michael Rossato-Bennett
Video from the director from the film's Kickstarter campaign
As dementia continues to affect millions of elderly Americans, Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory reveals a remarkable, music-based breakthrough that has already transformed lives. Spearheaded by social worker Dan Cohen and captured on camera over the course of three years by filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett, we learn that songs from a patient’s past can awaken memories and emotions that have been asleep for years, sometimes decades. Within a moment of hearing “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys, Alzheimer’s patient Marylou jolts back to life, dancing around the living room and expressing a euphoria her husband hasn’t witnessed since her illness took effect. Countless instances in Alive Inside provide proof that music stimulates activity in dementia-affected parts of the brain and transforms the quality of life of those often left to languish in silence.
Through revealing conversations with renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks and musician Bobby McFerrin, as well as powerful firsthand experiments conducted by Cohen in nursing homes, this groundbreaking documentary demonstrates how connecting the elderly to the music they love not only combats memory loss but also supplements a broken health-care system often indifferent to interpersonal connections.
Screening in U.S. Documentary Competition
Dir: Todd Miller
On August 12, 1990, in the badlands of South Dakota, paleontologist Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute unearthed the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. It was the find of a lifetime—the world’s greatest dinosaur discovery. They named their dinosaur Sue.
Two years later, when the FBI and the National Guard showed up, battle lines were drawn over ownership of Sue. The U.S. government, world-class museums, Native American tribes, and competing paleontologists became the Goliath to Larson’s David as he and his team fought to keep their dinosaur and wrestled with intimidation tactics that threatened their freedom as well.
Dinosaur 13 chronicles an unprecedented saga in American history and details the fierce battle to possess a 65-million-year-old treasure. With consummate skill, filmmaker Todd Miller excavates layer after layer, exposing human emotion in a dramatic tale that is as complex as it is fascinating.
The film has been acquired by Lionsgate and CNN Films.
As a teenager, Aaron Swartz was a computer-programming prodigy with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. After emerging as a pioneer of Internet activism, education, and politics, he was indicted on multiple federal charges in 2011 and 2012, setting off a complex chain of events that left the Internet community reeling. Shortly thereafter, at the age of 26, Swartz was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Brooklyn apartment. His family, friends, and supporters immediately blamed the prosecutors of the case, who aimed to put him in jail for 35 years and brand him a convicted felon for life. Swartz was persecuted for the very rights and freedoms for which he stood, and that ultimately broke him.
Weaving together home video footage and anecdotal interviews from his closest confidants, Brian Knappenberger creates a dynamic portrait of a precocious boy who grew up to lead the Internet community into a new age of data sharing and free speech.
Screening in Park City at Midnight
Dirs: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Elementary schools have given birth to great thinkers, innovative scientists, and inspiring leaders. They are also malignant cesspools, teeming with grime and disease.
Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s first film, Cooties, focuses on the virulent underbelly of grade school. Except this time, the bug that’s going around is transforming the student body from spazzes, tattletales, and brats into deranged, cannibalistic mutants. After an uncharacteristically blood-soaked recess, the surviving teachers and students band together in a desperate attempt to leave the building without being permanently dismissed.
This appealingly preposterous scenario comes together in a hilarious script by cowriters Leigh Whannel (the creator of Saw) and Ian Brennan (the creator of Glee). The strong ensemble cast includes Elijah Wood as a failed writer-turned-underwhelming substitute teacher, Alison Pill as his childhood crush, Rainn Wilson as a mustachioed gym teacher, and Jorge Garcia as a drug-addled crossing guard. Nasim Pedrad and Jack McBrayer are welcome additions to the roster.
Screening in Park City at Midnight
Dir: William Eubank
Nick and Jonah are MIT freshmen with a passion for hacking. While driving cross-country through Nevada with Nick’s girlfriend, Hailey, they follow rival hacker Nomad’s clues to a location 180 miles away. After a terrifying confrontation with Nomad in the middle of the desert, the trio regain consciousness in captivity. Struggling to comprehend the true nature of their confinement, they discover they are part of a plot much larger than themselves.
With his second sci-fi feature, William Eubank continues to prove that grand scale can be achieved on any budget. Starring up-and-comer Brenton Thwaites as Nick and Laurence Fishburne as his stoic captor, The Signal is a contemporary genre film with heart and imagination to spare. Beautifully shot and energetically directed, it lets the circumstances behind the trio’s imprisonment slowly unravel, leading to an epic and mind-blowing conclusion.
TO BE TAKEI
Screening in Documentary Premieres
Dir: Jennifer M. Kroot
TK Note: While technically this isn't a film about science or technology, I couldn't leave a film about Takei off of this list. Between his iconic role in Star Trek and his use of social media, he occupies a unique place at the intersection of art and science.
George Takei doesn’t shy away from digging into his remarkable career and personal life in Jennifer Kroot’s delightful and incisive film To Be Takei. As a child forced into Japanese-American internment camps, the actor-turned-activist reveals the ways that racism affected him well into his early acting career, where he played stereotypical Asian stock characters in film and television shows. Even after landing the iconic role of Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, Takei’s sharp eye, coupled with his wicked sense of humor, continued to challenge the status quo well into the twenty-first century.
Now at 76, nine years after formally coming out of the closet, Takei and his husband, Brad, have become the poster couple for marriage equality, highlighting homophobia through television interviews and hilarious skits, many of which have gone viral and garnered widespread attention. Whether dishing on William Shatner or parodying the now-infamous comments made by Tim Hardaway, Takei proves time and again why his presence in popular culture remains as fresh and necessary as ever. - H.V.
In 2010, a South Korean baby named Sarang died of malnutrition. The death of a child is always horrific, but the circumstances leading up to this one were even more shocking: Sarang died because her parents were playing games online. Ordinarily, this would be a clear case of negligence, but Love Child takes a different approach by looking at what led to the parents’ gaming addiction and how their child became a secondary concern. The film then expands from this tragedy to examine the way that South Korea’s place as the world leader of Internet infrastructure has adversely affected its communal society.
Director Valerie Veatch skillfully weaves a story of personal tragedy together with social commentary. Instead of merely condemning the parents, she shows how embracing technology can have unforeseen negative consequences. By interjecting footage from the game the parents loved to play into the film, Veatch vividly conveys how intoxicating these games can be and shows how easily the lines between real life and virtual reality can blur.
Screening in World Documentary
Dirs: Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia
China is one of the first countries in the world to label overuse of the Internet a clinical condition. To combat what authorities deem the greatest social crisis for youth today, the Chinese government has created treatment facilities to detox and cure teenagers of their addictions to online life.
But what starts out as an already-fascinating look at ways that technology may be destroying the lives of Chinese youth quickly becomes something more. As the unorthodox psychological sessions continue and the teenage boys begin to share with their parents the reasons why they feel more connected to disassociated voices in cyberspace than to their families, Web Junkie chronicles the results of a nation going through one of most drastic transformations in human history. In honest and wrenching ways that transcend national borders, this film is a thoughtful examination of a society in flux and a technology-addled generation on the precipice of an unknown future.
Part of the Free Fail program
One of the enduring human enigmas is that so many iconic endeavors—from Nobel Prize–winning achievements to entrepreneurial inventions and works in the arts—are not discoveries but conversions, corrections after failed attempts.
Moderated by author, scholar, and curator Sarah Lewis, whose upcoming book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery explores this theme across myriad disciplines from science to athletics to music and art. Exploratory Detours takes a look at this intriguing issue.
By pulling together science, scholarship, and philosophy, we can better understand the fascinating relationship linking creativity, failure, and mastery that extends far beyond the familiar platitudes. What does it mean to have grit? How does validation work? What can we learn from the way jazz musicians improvise? Our diverse group of panelists look at the ways irreplaceable gifts spring from failure in creative endeavors.
Panelists include: Sarah Lewis (author, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery), Charles J. Limb, MD (Dr. Limb studies the neural mechanisms behind deep creativity, especially in relation to music and other art forms), Jill Soloway (director, writer, and producer for the film Afternoon Delight, and TV series such as Six Feet Under and United States of Tara), Chris Stone (President, Open Society Foundations), and Sundance Institute President and Founder Robert Redford.
THE COSMIC CROSSROADS
Whether it’s searching for life in the universe or searching for results in a lab, scientists often have a number of theories but are not quite sure what they will find. It’s an enigma that compels filmmakers regularly, but it also brings up an interesting question about process that unites science and storytelling. How do you see what’s not there? How do you form narratives? How do imagination, logic, creativity, and empiricism ally in film’s creative mix? Moderated by Flora Lichtman (multimedia editor, Science Friday, NPR), this year’s group of scientists, Kevin Hand (deputy chief scientist, Solar System Exploration, NASA) and Jill Tarter (SETI Institute), and writers, Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, The Darkest Hour) and Max Mayer (Adam), discuss their work as well as good and bad science-in-film. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
AFTER SUNDANCE: EMBRACING CHANGE
New Frontier panel
Learn from former Sundance filmmakers who have paved their own path in this changing media landscape and embraced new models of business, technology, and content creation at this very special “show-and-tell” panel. Moderator Chris Horton (director, #ArtistServices, Sundance Institute) along with Jill Soloway (director, Afternoon Delight), Tiffany Shlain (filmmaker and founder, The Webby Awards), Jared Geller (producer, hitRECord), and Dennis Dortch (CEO/founder, BLACK&SEXY.TV) share their tales of creation and innovation. You can also get a sneak peak at Soloway’s television pilot Transparent.
THE BEAUTY OF FAILURE
Part of the Free Fail program
How does embracing risk and failure drive the creative process? Creating something new goes hand in hand with the risk of failure, which the New Frontier artists confront with every project. These artists continue to push boundaries and embrace the new in both their work and their lives. Join Aaron Koblin (creative director, Google Creative Lab), Sam Green (filmmaker, Weather Underground), Jillian Mayer (artist/filmmaker, director #PostModem), Nate Mitchell (Oculus Rift), and Mike Stubbs (FACT) as they share what it takes to be on the vanguard of art, film, and technology, and how overcoming failure can lead to some of their best work. Moderated by Ruby Lerner (executive director, Creative Capital).
THE STORYWORLD: CREATING INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCES THAT WORK
New Frontier Panel
Actively incorporating your audience members gives them permission to become part of the story rather than mere observers. But letting go of authorship can be tricky. How do you create effective, yet compelling, interactive experiences that audiences want to be part of? Join us for a creative, mind-opening, and inspiring conversation as we break free of the linear narrative and discuss the innovative and rich world of interactive storytelling with artist/director Chris Milk (Sound and Vision, Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown), artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris (I Love Your Work, I Want You to Want Me, Cowbird), game maker Nick Fortugno (cofounder and CCO, Playmatics), Sep Kamvar (professor, MIT), Nate Mitchell(VP Product, Oculus Rift), and transmedia leader Susan Bonds (CEO, 42 Entertainment). Moderated by Charles Melcher (founder, The Future of Storytelling [FoST] Summit and Melcher Media).
HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL ON YOUTUBE
New Frontier Panel
YouTube's top creators, learn the key strategies filmmakers can use for creating successful content on YouTube that keeps audiences engaged and coming back for more. The session explores questions you should ask yourself when developing new online content and provides examples of the way YouTube offers filmmakers the opportunity to have creative freedom and reach a wide audience.