Review: Sixth Annual Juggernaut Film Fest a Feast of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Film Fun

Juggernaut Film Festival
Juggernaut Film Festival in Chicago. Photo credit: Steven Townshend

This past weekend, Otherworld Theatre hosted the sixth annual Juggernaut Film Festival at the Music Box Theater. The festival, while not terribly well publicized, featured a huge selection of sci-fi and fantasy films from all over the world. Some were award-winning, some from first-time filmmakers, and all were championed by the festival’s host, actor/director Gates McFadden, who impressed upon the audience just how hard it was to be able to translate your story into film, and especially how hard it was to convey your message in a short on a tight budget.

Ms. McFadden’s presence was a highlight of the festival, with her commentary in between film blocks and sense of humor and great theater chops making for interesting intervals between films, most especially in her appearance with Improvised Star Trek, where she ran the cast members through a gauntlet to see who would be worthy to accompany her on any mysterious journeys she should need to take.  

Gates McFadden
Gates McFadden with the cast of Improvised Star Trek at Juggernaut Film Festival. Photo credit: Steven Townshend.

Each of the festival’s two days was divided into 3 or 4 blocks. A block either consisted of a feature film or a series of shorts that fit a certain criteria-genre, time or descriptor, like “first time filmmaker” and each film ran seamlessly into the next, with a short break between them to go get concessions and step into the sun.  

Saturday’s first film was a feature called The Stronghold. This film, hailing from the Ukraine and directed by Yury Kovaliov, was at first glance another Kid in King Arthur’s Court, where an ordinary boy (Vitko, played by Danylo Kamenskyi) falls through a sort of vortex and lands himself in the year 1120. This film could have been formulaic and taken itself too seriously, but the film manages a balance between drama and humor that reminded me of one of my favorite films, The Princess Bride. One scene inparticular made great use of the technology divide between the medieval foes and Vitko, with him babbling incoherently and innocuously and aiming roman candles and various other fireworks at a crowd in order to appear to be a powerful sorcerer. This was the absolute right choice for kicking off the festival—a film with a ton of charm and enough drama and humor to really grab an audience. 

Saturday’s second block entirely consisted of films which were had a runtime of 11 minutes or less. Standouts from this block were Echo and Solomon, a sci-fi short film directed by Jem Garrard in which viewers found themselves alongside two women in a dystopian universe dominated by artificial intelligence, and Soluk, a 5-minute film out of Turkey that in that brief time touches on environmental and human issues in an absolutely beautiful manner.  

This block had a few more gems, too, like Prenatal, an American film directed by Bears Fonte in which a religiously fervent woman mysteriously becomes pregnant overnight. She claims it’s angels, and begs for her sister’s help, but things go south fast. This film had so many twists and turns in its 11 minutes and really turned some genre tropes on its ear, and was thoroughly enjoyable, if bleak, because of it. This block also featured Philippe McKie’s award winning sci-fi short Breaker, which was so visually stunning and action packed I can only describe it as a harajuku Matrix nightmare that I still want to explore, somehow.  

There were, as you’d expect, a few stumbles when it was time for the First Time Filmmaker block, with Steamwrecked, an American film directed by Christopher Matista, seeming to rely too heavily on the appeal of the steampunk aesthetic and providing it little underpinning with things like original story or believable plots. This problem is only exacerbated with over-the-top acting. An interesting entry in this block was the super-surreal film Zoey and the Wind-Up Boy, which visually and literally feels very much more like an esoteric music video. At 30 minutes, it’s a visual feast, if a bit of a puzzler plot wise.  

Saturday’s final block featured a fantasy short film by Colombian director Miguel Ortega called The Ningyo, in which a professor goes off to find the ningyo, a mythical sea creature whose skin holds magical powers. The Ningyo immediately brought the deep density of Guillermo del Toro’s created worlds to mind, and was full of some truly amazing monsters. It’s just part one of the series, and we were left on a cliffhanger that made us excited to see more. 

Earth to Isaac. Photo by Thomas Molash.

Sunday, we found some true treasures in the Sci-Fi Shorts block, including some truly wonderful local filmmakers’ pieces. In Earth to Isaac, Chicago based filmmaker Jack Birdsall explores when a childhood ends, with a father and son trying to make sense of a tragedy and coming together to grieve by building an interstellar radio to hopefully communicate with someone out there who can help them. 

Similarly, Michael Lippert’s short, Miriam Is Going To Mars, has its main characters looking for answers in space, and beautifully frames a woman’s struggles with mental illness with her desire to be one of the first to colonize Mars, an act she thinks will help her to be able to provide for her son. This film packs an entire feature film’s worth of emotion into its 13 minutes and is as sad as it is beautifully done. You can see her reality just as clearly as the reality of the people that surround her and are trying to help her, and it’s this, as well as her son’s bright-eyed hopefulness in the face of her struggles, that really hit home.

Another interesting short was The Manual by William Magness, in which the last human on Earth is being raised “by the book”–in this case a manual on protocol that’s taken on the aspects of a holy tome. As he begins to question his upbringing, things start to fall apart for him, and the juxtaposition of AI with religion really caught my attention.  

Similarly, stunning visual allegory was what drew me in to Adam Peiper, a Spanish short directed by Monica Mateo that should feel familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced the sort of crushing despair of a workplace where numbers matter more than humans. Its eerie, artistic setting and amazing visual effects effectively translate the cold complacency of the corporate world into a beautiful nightmare. 

The festival’s final feature was a nightmare in itself. Calliope, by Joe Shaffer, is an imagination of the very near future so similar to where we already are as to be indistinguishable, with the addition of a black market in which people escape into other’s “beautiful dreams.” This film’s real strength is in its portrayal of the incredible bleakness of its main characters’ lives.

It achieves Trainspotting/Requiem For A Dream levels of depression-inducing feelings as it strikes down every shred of hope for Marie, a semi-functioning woman with an unhealthy obsession for her nearly burned out of existence boyfriend, who tries to become the hero by selling his dreams. It’s a film that’s done very well, but one I won’t look forward to rewatching any time soon.  

While we definitely enjoyed our time at Juggernaut, it wasn’t always an entirely seamless event. For a festival already in its sixth year we were surprised to find it not as organized as we’d expected, with the online schedule and paper program not always matching, no indication of what was happening in a given space if you happened to arrive at the festival mid-block and, at times, a lack of staff on-hand to ask.

Still, we had a good experience at the film festival, and thought that with very few exceptions, we were treated to some of the best of sci-fi. To find out more about the annual Juggernaut Film Festival, click here.

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Marielle Bokor
Marielle Bokor