A lone traveler from another dimension arrives on a familiar yet mysterious planet. This is Screen Critix Review of writer/director and star Marcus McMahon’s ‘A Helical’.
“A Helical is a retro sci-fi film that is inspired by the dark industrial landscapes of 1980’s England and New Wave music. The story follows a man who travels to a mysterious planet that reveals his subconscious to him. The Film is influenced by Jungian themes, dreams, and esotericism.”
And so begins director Marcus McMahon’s description of ‘A Helical’; his highbrow, avant-garde short film. Rarely has a film I have reviewed for Screen Critix been framed so beautifully and looked so stunning. I have reviewed some great independent films before but ‘A Helical’s visuals blew me away.
As the film opens with its retro credit sequence and score, we are immediately transported back to a time when we visited dark and smoky video shops to rent VHS tapes in chunky cases. So much so that we are half expecting to see a VHS distributor logo like Video Gems, Vestron Video or Cannon Films pop up at the start.
Brought into this world by some intentionally crude computer animation that is reminiscent of Disney’s 80’s classic Tron, we are introduced to our lead character – a lone traveler known as ‘A Helical’ played by the film’s director Marcus McMahon, who appears to us from an interdimensional portal. Wearing a striking blue suit and polo neck jumper, our Helical immediately comes across as otherworldly. Mcmahon, slender, wiry, remote, gives us an eerie performance, evoking this time-and-space traveler so successfully that you could say it was perfect casting. He journeys through this world at a gentle-yet-forceful pace and we follow him, transfixed by the pictures being thrown at us.
There is a huge mathematical and geometrical aspect to the film as our Helical passes cubes, pyramids, cones, spheres and cylinders, all wonderfully created by the natural surrounding environments. He continuously walks in straight lines, crossing parallels, passing reflections and following opposites, his dialogue is basic and repetitive. The only way to describe what we are seeing on screen is to imagine one of those magic eye 3D pictures has suddenly been brought to life. There is also a touch of Greek mythology as The Helical, in the film’s worst moment, speaks to a badly animated head of some sort of ‘God’ and visits an oracle type of witch that echoes Perseus quest in Clash Of The Titans.
If I were judging this film solely on its visuals then it would get an unqualified rave review, no questions asked. It’s only when I begin to think about the story and the tone that my enthusiasm comes down a notch. To my mind ‘A Helical’ has been done more as an exercise than as a story you are supposed to care about, there is no plot, not really. We just have an alien traveler visiting an alien world that isn’t so much set in the future or the past but more a parallel timeline, a limbo, caught somewhere between now and then. There is a section halfway through the film’s 30-minute runtime that raises the stakes somewhat, becoming more of a David Lynch influenced psychological shouting match. However, it is never really explained what the stakes are and as a result, we are left feeling a little empty.
I would be lying if I said I understood everything that was going on in ‘A Helical’ as there was no strong narrative to pull me through., but I was constantly invited to enjoy the moments, to experience one delicious visual after another, to look past the characters and drink in the cinematography by Michael Wisniowski and relish the gorgeous set design. It is the sheer quality of the images throughout the short that confirms to me the opening animation and SFX are intentionally crude and tacky to create a feeling of nostalgia in the viewer.
Helical is a film of two extremes, there will be those who see it as a pretentious art-house vanity project and others who will be overwhelmed and consumed by the imagery and think it is one of the best short films in years, I fall into the latter. Through the years there have been many inspired films that have been made solely for the eye and ‘A Helical’ is one such film. Once seen, it will prove very difficult to forget.