Level 16; “how and how not to do low-budget Sci-Fi”
Over the years, low budget movies have changed exponentially. In 2019, independent film makers are getting an awful lot more bang for their buck. Look at 1970s low budget film, for example, as excellent as those genre films could be, some elements of their production lacked. The audio was either weak or the camera tech they used delivered flat visuals with a poor dynamic range. Now, with camera technology being more affordable than ever and editing moving onto computers, film making has become accessible. Whether that is for better or worse is not my place to say. As dense as the Indie space has become, there are a select few who recall the apex of the 70s and 80s who overcame limited resources to put together something with staying power, most become anonymous by practicing god worship on their childhood favourites and little more. Two solid examples of low budget ingenuity in 2019, come from Jordan Downey’s miraculous Head Hunter and Danishka Esterhazy’s Level 16.
As generic and nondescript a title as Level 16 is, it has more than enough going on for it to be sought out by the curious. In it we are introduced to a group of teenage girls who are being brought up with videos telling what it means to a member of the fairer sex through educational videos and ‘talking picture’ nights, regular medication under the promise that these girls will be adopted by a member of high society. Naturally, being an atmospheric science fiction piece there is something far grimmer awaiting them. Something far worse than being locked away from the world, and far worse than being made subservient by weaponising lies and exaggeration.
Little details suggest that whatever has been going on has been going on for a long time. The once pristine sheen of the halls is no more, the girls spend much of their time cleaning and doing chores, the video tuition they receive skips like old VHS tapes, yet when the two leads (Katie Douglas (Vivien) and Celina Martin (Sophia)) uncover the truth, they are met by touch screen technology. Implications and subtext make Esterhazy’s film. The titular prison is ruled by extremely conservative femininity dictated by one man who idolises the suburban idyll of the 1950s. There’s a degree of Black Mirror via a certain Kazuo Ishiguro book. Stories like these are better served by having as few distancing techniques as possible, being direct gives the movie its best possible chance. At the best of times subtlety is a little over-rated, especially when working with heightened drama and generic tropes.
The production values are great for such a small film as are the performance from the younger cast members, as it is through them that authenticity lives or dies. The acting and characterisation isn’t consistent, however, the adults are caricatures with Sara Canning and Peter Outerbridge having very little to do beyond being one-dimensional figures of authority – proxies, basically. The scene in which Outerbridge (Doctor Miro) talks [to Douglas] about Vivien Leigh stands out what with it being a scene where he is a character rather than a plot device with a beard. The pacing is also problematic. While slow, it can, fortunately, be explained as a means to get into the head-space of these girls, whereby the longer you experience their routine the more uneasy the atmosphere becomes. Still, even if you can talk your way around it – slow is slow.
To return to my opening discussion of budgets, Level 16 works as all it needs is a contained space and the rest is done with by shrewd production design. Too many low budget films tend to look cheap because they introduce too many moving parts, by having a concept that only requires the acting to be of a strong standard and some white rooms, it can only be a good thing. When directors try to do too much with too little not only does it break any suspension of disbelief, you also become very aware that you are watching a cheap movie. That being said, the low budget space is much too packed, so as interesting a low-budget sci-fi as Esterhazy’s Level 16 is, it is destined to be drowned out by the noise of genre in 2019.
LEVEL 16 IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON PRIME AND VOD NOW