Short Film Review: Beyond.
We look at another short from Joe Penna, a time travel story rich in character studies.
Joe Penna (aka. MysteryGuitarMan) delivers another fantastic genre film with Beyond. We’ve seen his take on the outbreak/zombie genre with Turning Point, and his debut feature look at man versus nature in Arctic. Beyond once again takes a familiar genre, embraces its conventions, and explores its implications in a gorgeous short film that could easily stand up to a feature length adaptation.
A monk (Ray Trickitt) on the edge of the fading Roman empire makes a startling discovery. A new brother joins the order, but his customs arouse suspicion. Examining his cell, the monk discovers a strange object – a medical injector which accidently injects a healing serum into his eye. Interacting with his body in an unforeseen manner, the monk is blessed/cursed with immortality. He spends his long life searching for the mysterious stranger and a way to reverse his condition.
Back to the Future.
One of the central intrigues, and constant thorns, of the time travel story is circular reasoning. Bill and Ted make a mockery of it, Back to the Future winks and nods at it, and James Cameron’s Terminator franchise portrays it deadly seriously. Joe Penna takes it as a given, and then explores the implications of it.
We’re introduced to a strange journal early, and it guides both of our time travelers. The time traveler uses it as a guide to explore time backwards, while the immortal uses it as a guidebook to events going forwards.
This dual mechanism neatly addresses the issues of causality. It appears that both men drive each other’s journeys by using the book. Its genesis and its veracity are kept mysterious, allowing each story to have kernels of doubt and leaps of faith. Like most time travel MacGuffins, it doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny, but it is a nifty little device to spur on the narrative.
Strangers in a Strange Land.
Much like Turning Point, the acting in Beyond feels wobbly at first. It takes about half the film for the roles to flesh out and feel natural. Ray Trickitt (a veteran of the short film medium, and worthy of a deeper dive in the future) is solid as the protagonist, though he can feel a bit stilted at times. His narration is a high point of the film, and much of the philosophical heft of the piece derives from the inverted symmetry of his words.
Jade Harlow, the star of Turning Point, returns to Joe Penna’s roster, and I liked her much better here. Her character only shows up in a later arc, but her ability to communicate internal chaos by way of physical motion elevates her character above just a plot device.
I didn’t love the time traveler, played by Circus-Szalewski, another veteran of the short form. As his role deepens, it becomes more interesting, so I write most of it off to the early parts of the film being both vague and reliant on archetype. As the story evolves, the characters come alive and feel deeply engaging.
Form and Function.
As much as I loved Artic, Beyond feels grander in scale and setting. Much of this comes from excellent location scouting, and deft choice in framing. Each era that the immortal lives through has minimal embellishment, but feels instantly recognizable by smart choices in establishing shots and detail. When you’re in the middle ages, you feel it. When you’re in the 60’s, its indelible. The budget constrains the interior shots, which feel a little “Dr. Who”-ish, but they’re serviceable. I spotted an anachronistic shovel early on, but hey, who has the budget for a renaissance appropriate shovel?
Turn, Turn, Turn.
Beyond is a surprisingly moving dip into the time travel genre. By allowing for the well-worn trope of circular logic, it allows the narrative to dig into the events organically. We’re following two characters who don’t really understand how their journey’s are fueled, and as they grapple with the implications, we get a very human drama out of it.
An inverted symmetry to the events allows for a deeper philosophy to bloom. As he did in Turning Point and Arctic, Penna takes the archetypical and scratches at the surface of it, giving way to intriguing insights. There are some limitations born by the budget and form, though at 50 minutes, Penna is knocking at the door of a full feature film here. Ultimately, the characters and material bear fruit, and Beyond is a well-made journey.