Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Cinema File #210: "The History of Future Folk" Review

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is so shamelessly goof ball in its approach to heartwarming sentimentality that it almost dares you to be cynical about it. The History of Future Folk, an independent sci-fi comedy about music loving aliens with buckets on their heads is primarily focused on the inherent beauty of creativity and artistic expression through the eyes of characters experiencing these things for the first time, with seemingly no greater purpose than to remind people how much fun it is that we can all sing, dance, and rock out together as part of this amazing human condition. And yet, it isn’t trite or saccharine, or at least not overwhelmingly so, and the earnestness with which it approaches its simple premise made me smile in spite of myself.

The story follows an alien general from a world in danger of Kryptonian-esque destruction sent to Earth to annihilate the human population with a virus as the first step to re-colonization, stopped at the last minute when he hears music for the first time. He realizes that he can’t in good conscience destroy a species capable of inventing something so incredible, so instead he settles down, starts a family, and learns everything he can about this strange art form as he works to avert his home world’s impending catastrophe in some other way. After a few years, a second alien arrives to assassinate the first, deemed a traitor for abandoning his mission, but after explaining the situation and introducing this second arrival to Earth music, the two set aside their differences and form an underground folk rock duo where their honesty is seen as brilliant performance art.

Right away I was a bit concerned when I found the film’s set up employing one of my least favorite science fiction clichés, where an alien somehow has no experience with something as simple as music, as if a species could evolve exactly like humans physically, but so different socially. It’s akin to the often used Star Trek plot of the mysterious alien test to learn about this thing humans call “Love,” and whenever I see it, I instantly balk at the cheesiness of it. The typical problem with this plot is that it is such an obvious narrative tool that I can’t suspend my disbelief to accept the world anymore, but luckily The History of Future Folk never really expects you to, and instead uses the cliché to craft what feels more like a modern day fairytale than a sci-fi lecture on some philosophical point. At every turn you forgive the film its trespasses, because it never loses the sense that it’s all in good fun.

It’s strange to say it considering how I’ve been extolling the virtue of this movie’s earnestness and simplicity, but if I could point to one main problem I had, it’s that often what little plot there is almost gets in the way. The heart of the story is the relationship between these two aliens and their relationships with the humans in their lives, but once you throw in a third alien from a different planet that serves only to add an artificial complication and a mad dash to NASA, it can get a little bigger than I think a story like this needs to be. It never gets to the point where it ruins the movie or distracts from the upbeat tone, and it gives Dee Snider’s character something to do, but I would have much preferred a more down to Earth resolution (no pun intended). We get that too, with two parallel love stories that come together nicely in the end, but that’s all I needed, and sometimes it felt like they were padding the movie a bit to get us there.

There is a moment towards the beginning of the film where one of the aliens has the other tied to a chair in what might otherwise look like a torture scene, where the first alien plays a banjo medley of classic and modern songs as a wordless explanation for his apparent apostasy. This ends with the would-be alien assassin breaking his bonds, leaping from his chair, and seemingly embracing the spirit of music with a literally operatic scream. I gather this was something close to the reaction the entire film is meant to elicit, and while I wasn’t as lulled or captivated as some others might be, it does a good job of trying to capture that child-like wonder of the first time you discover something you’ll love for the rest of your life. For me, that was never music, but I think everyone can relate to that feeling regardless of what that one thing is in their life, and this movie uses it very well as its driving emotional hook. It might be somewhat manipulative, but never obtrusively so, and by the end, it earns the goodwill it asks so boldly for. Definitely give it a shot if you come across it. 
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