It’s quite rare for me to get to review films around the date of their initial release. I think the last time it happened was for Russell Crowe’s ’The Water Diviner’ a couple of years back. It’s also quite rare for a Great War Film to be based in Los Angeles. And finally it’s VERY rare (although not unique) for a Great War Film to have time travel as a central plot tenet. My film today is, as you may have guessed from the previous statements, a bit of a rarity in Great War Films terms. It recently had its’ world premiere at the San Diego Comic Con, it is set in Los Angeles and, yes, it features time travel. A ‘Sci-fi’ Great War Film. That’s a new, and particularly niche, sub-genre. Hopefully this one works a little better than ‘Horror’ Great War Film ‘Deathwatch’, which is so dreadful it makes me angry. Well, there’s only one way to find out.
‘Alistair1918’ is the story of a Great War soldier who is thrown forward in time and space from the Second Battle of the Marne in France during 1918 to Los Angeles in 2014. The eponymous Alistair has to quickly come to grips with his new surroundings whilst fighting for survival in an unforgiving urban landscape. A film crew casting about for vox populi on the subject of Homelessness are directed to a wooded area known to be frequented by homeless people. There they stumble upon Alistair and, as they befriend him, he talks them through his story. How he ended up in Los Angeles, what he’d been doing to survive for the last 30 days and how he wants to return to his own time and his wife.
There are two films that immediately spring to mind in terms of comparisons. I’ve recently re-visited Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Fisher King’ which deals with mental health and homelessness in a skewed, typically Gilliam manner. No-one is who they say they are. Their histories and traumatic memories are tucked away somewhere in their sub-conscious. Their manic, maudlin, unpredictable behaviour causing onlookers to recoil in fear. Alistair, at least initially, is treated in much the same way by the members of the crew and the general public. He is filthy, he stinks, and the talk of time travel makes them question his sanity.
Second comparison, ‘Primer’ (2004), is a more obvious film to compare ‘Alistair1918’ to. Not everyone will know this film and I’m not sure how I found out about it myself if I’m honest! ‘Primer’ is an ultra-low budget time travel film that is rooted in reality. On a budget of $7,000 the film gained cult status due to its rock solid premise and mind-bending story. ‘Alistair1918’ has been knocked out on a 2014 budget of under $30,000. Like Primer there is one driving force person behind the majority of the production and also like Primer the main reason this film succeeds is because it has a cast who all pull their weight and who clearly care about the final result.
The story evolves much as you’d expect at the start. Alistair needs some food, a wash and a roof over his head. The presenter of the documentary takes a bit of a shine to him and as she starts to believe his story she begins to think of ways to get him back to his own time. An expert is contacted and plans are put in place. I won’t spoil it by telling you anymore, you’ll have to buy it to find out.
With the budgetary constraints comes a need for the team to think lean. The cast and crew overlap roles with Director Annie McVey also taking on the role of the documentary presenter. Writer, Producer, Actor Guy Birtwhistle has lots of hats on and each one of those hats is an essential millinery accessory to the overall finished product. The crew act and the actors become the crew. Anything with a record function is pressed into service as a movie camera, including iPhones and Samsung S3s.
The use of all the various different cameras, with lots of different members of the cast taking on camera person duties at different points in the film, is a standout feature. In a few spots the editing cuts from one camera shooting another to the other camera shooting the first and back again. It’s all very 21st century and it totally works with the story. It’s modern and I can’t think of many (any?) other films from the last few years that have done that.
The film has clearly been done on the cheap but at the same time there is clearly some talent on display here. Cheap is a relative thing and when you look at films like ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’ which was knocked out on a tiny budget but also absolutely woeful in terms of production values ‘Alistair1918’ looks like a proper feature film. The editing is sharp, the sound has been well handled (one of ‘Birdemics’ massive failings), the cinematography does what it should in terms of continuity of lighting, staging etc. It’s got a bit of class.
I liked it. The story isn’t my normal Great War Film fayre and, to be honest, it’s been good for me to look at something outside the norm. Alistair is the centre of the story and he’s well played by Guy Birtwhistle. He looked the part with a nice dirty uniform and a wounded hand. I was rooting for him to get home and as the film ended I wanted a bit more. I wanted to see what the GoPro saw. Hopefully that’s not a spoiler. I liked that the differences between 1918 and 2014 was played down. ‘We have radios’ Alistair says when asked about how he feels owning a mobile phone. Did I dislike anything? Not really.
What I really look for in a film (and music, and people, actually probably all aspects of my life!) is integrity. If something has been done with heart and care and a love of the creative process then I’m all for it. This film does that. The crew/cast clearly cared for the output and what they have produced is to be applauded. Having read the media blurb, writer Guy Birtwhistle talks about his own family connections to the Great War and his desire to put himself in their shoes. He’s done them proud and to see the film dedicated to them at the end resonated with me. I often think about how I might’ve survived in those times. Not too well is my conclusion. I’m sure my Great Grandfather would’ve been a much better transplant into the modern day than I would be into the past.
So, to conclude and pull together my rambling thoughts, this is a film which entertains and pulls you in. It’s not got all the bells and whistles but it does do a great job at telling a story and keeping you entertained and isn’t that what it should be all about? It’s not a Great War Film in so much as it’s not based in a trench, of an airfield but it has elements that made me think about the conflict and how the world has not changed quite as much as we sometimes think in the last 100 years. You can go watch the trailer, the first 20 minutes or buy it at their Vimeo site which links through from the website at www.alistair1918.com. I’m sure they’d love your money.