Helio, Directed by Teddy Cecil
Helio is a short film with the substance and weight of a feature film. Its story is the story of the future: the consequence of apocalyptic war and the destruction of the natural environment. Like a lot of great stories, this one unfolds organically and without the intervention of a narrator; drawing upon a legacy of futuristic dystopias — from Star Wars to Orwell — it advances from the mysterious elements of a future society to a thrilling chase that sets in opposition an oppressive government and its people.
According to the ‘Council of Health’, ‘Heliotherapy saves lives’. This is the message that illuminates an enormous digital billboard in the dark urban environment of the protagonist — an unnamed miner (played by Barrett James). Then another message from the same billboard appears, this time courtesy of the ‘Council of Preservation’: ‘70,476 DAYS OF SHELTER SINCE THE FINAL WAR’. From everywhere, a woman’s disembodied voice speaks to the denizens of this strange metropolis.
Attention: this is your intermittent reminder to get light. If you’re feeling noticeably anxious, fatigued, or otherwise not your normal self, you may already be overdue for a session! Stop by your local light clinic and get your necessary exposure. Do not forget: light is a prerequisite for life. Your Council of Health is here for you.
It turns out that the miner is already inside one of these light clinics. Bright lights shine on people lying in beds in hospital-like conditions. Despite these lights, however, the small chamber is dark and depressing. Darkness creeps into the room where it is not illuminated by the harsh, artificial light. Noticeably absent is any sign of the sun.
Elements of this dystopian world are rooted in traditional themes of this genre. Society has become post-apocalyptic as a result of unwise human intervention (killing each other, destroying the planet). This world’s artificiality attempts to recreate the conditions of natural life, but succeeds only in creating a depressing dystopia: it features the peculiar combination of futuristic technology and oppressive poverty. It has the greyness of an Orwellian nightmare. The compact destitution of this failed metropolis is a netherworld of darkness — interrupted occasionally by unnatural light.
Though founded in traditional themes, the concept is innovative; and the execution is exceptional. The anonymous miner finds himself in a dramatic pursuit that involves members of the menacing Council of Security and ‘the Resistance’. The film is a chase, and the cinematography (by Byron Werner) expertly utilises the constant movement of the film’s action, integrating the energy of pursuit into the movement of the camera. The camera’s speed and turbulence reflect the running of protagonist and Council alike, shaking with each step to at once mimic and create the dramatic reality of a frenetic race of bodies through a strange and winding futuristic space. The camera darts around like the characters themselves, almost as if out of control — the camera even seems to have its own momentum — but it does so smoothly, studiedly, and purposefully. It’s a controlled chaos.
The perspective varies throughout the work: chasing the runners, stepping back to capture wide views of action in slow motion, looking down at the uniformity of the Council, looking up toward someone falling from the sky, producing magnificent views of the city. In the latter of these, and in other aspects of the film as well, the animation (visual effects by Brad Phillips, Patrick Barrett, Christopher Hirtz, Shane Murphy, Robert Vanderstelt; graphic design by Nick Cofino; animation by Aaron Wiesinger; digital compositor: Joseph Silva) of the imaginary future metropolis is quite successful. The film features stunning cityscapes which move and breathe with the energy of a real city. The production and costume designs (production design by Kurt Braun; art direction by Bryan Decker; set decoration by Mel Huffman; costume design by Elizabeth Van Dam) in the creation of this city are expertly detailed, from the vast aerial landscapes to the silent man in the alley smoking his glass pipe. Posted signs cover the brick and steel walls of this labyrinthine metropolis, advising future citizens about future patriotic practice. One from the Council of Security instructs citizens to ‘INFORM COUNCILLORS OF PROVOCATION’ in order to ‘ELIMINATE TRANSGRESSIONS’. Another echoes familiar slogans of late capitalism.
WHAT DID YOU DO FOR YOUR COUNCIL TODAY?
While the animation is delightful, the film’s special effects (stunt coordinator: Jesse Johnson) rival those of any Hollywood production. The explosions and fight scenes are so realistic and overwhelming that they do not warrant critical discussion: if the mark of realism in film is the viewer’s immediate acceptance of the authenticity of its drama without inquiring into its artefactual production, Helio is a success. Great special effects, in other words, do not draw attention to their artificiality. If there are relevant questions, they are admirable ones: How did they do that? Was that an actual bomb? Rather than skepticism about the drama, the realism of Helio inspires wonder at the feat itself.
This is an action movie, so its most significant achievements are those which make the action convincing — the stunts, special and visual effects, animation — and by virtue of its focus, the film features almost no dialogue. This is the case for a lot of Hollywood features of the same genre, but even in Hollywood action movies there are pauses in the action to make room for other (usually romantic) aspects of the drama. Helio takes no pauses. The dialogue (written by Teddy Cecil), when it does appear, is succinct: every word is written purposefully and exclusively for the advancement of plot. When the director of the light clinic (played by Chuck Wigginton) exclaims ‘This is a light clinic, not a hospital!’ or ‘They’re part of the Resistance!’ he does more than communicate his shock; he also reveals significant details to the audience about the strange world he inhabits. The film emphasises physical acting over dialogue, and one gleans the states of mind and dramatic tension from the actors’ movements: the head Councillor of Security (played by Dennis Keiffer) barks orders, but his brutality is more obvious when he shoves innocent bystanders; the unnamed miner, for his part, says nothing. He communicates everything by his movement.
The story follows in the footsteps of Star Wars and Orwell, and does so well. It presents a familiar dichotomy between an oppressive state and ‘the Resistance’, the former pure evil and the latter a ragtag group of taggers and revolutionaries. The total disregard for human life exhibited by the members of the Council of Security emphasises their brutality, while the ordinary kindnesses of the people under their oppression reveal an underlying humanity in this inhuman world. The cultural language of oppression and the culturally-particular symbology of resistance fit well in this traditional framework: symbols like ‘the ladder’ and ‘the pipe’ take on cultural and sometimes religious significance; the dystopian vocabulary of the various ‘Councils’, whose words fill each corner of the city, create a world of fear, oppression, resistance, and hope. The cinematic construction of this world is highly accomplished. ■
Runtime: 20 minutes
Genre: Science Fiction, Short
Country: United States
Find out more
Find out more about this film and its director on the pages for Helio and Teddy Cecil in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the film’s pages on Facebook and Twitter, and the film’s website. Teddy Cecil is an independent filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Helio is the recipient of numerous international awards and is Cecil’s first film, of which he is writer, director, producer, and composer. His film production company is Shadow Council Productions, LLC.
A trailer for Helio can be viewed below:
This film is the 2016 recipient of the Atlas Awards for Best Action Film and Best Science Fiction Film.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Helio’. Shadow Council Productions, LLC.