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Thursday
Nov292018

FIRST LIGHT

Stars: Stefanie Scott, Théodore Pellerin, Saïd Taghmaoui, Percy Hynes White, Jahmil French, James Wotherspoon and Kate Burton.
Writer/director: Jason Stone.

Reviewed at Monster Fest 2018 at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova on November 23.

WINNER: Best International Film, Monster Fest 2018

Rating: ★★★★

Millennial types that stare blank-faced and shrug when you mention the great films of 1970s Hollywood make a grab at one the decade’s best with First Light. In Jason Stone’s low-key, highly charged UFO drama, an alien encounter imbues an everyday suburbanite with an inexplicable connection to lights in the sky. Whether you know it or not, kids, you’ve now got your own generation’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind.

Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic featured a thirty-something Richard Dreyfuss as a contactee strangely obsessed with visions of a distant mountain. ‘Thirty-something’ protagonists are way too old for the modern movie audience (unless they are comic-book hero alter-egos), so a savvy Stone has recast his lead as high-schooler Alex (Stefanie Scott). Also, ‘strange obsessions’ are hard to conjure, even for the modern effects wiz; having survived a near drowning via the visitation of glowing orb entities, Alex doubles-down on that distant yearning with telekinetic powers (good, especially when called upon flip ex-boyfriend’s cars) and high-radiation levels (bad, especially for…well, everybody).

Along for the ride is Sean (Théodore Pellerin), the audience conduit whose doe-eyed, unshakeable commitment to Alex provides the emotional core of Stone’s narrative. Scenes of the young man’s home life establish him as a teen of integrity and character; parent-less, he hangs with his smart-mouth, street-wise younger brother Oscar (a scene-stealing Percy Hynes White) and cares for his near-catatonic grandmother, whose arc is small but provides one of the year’s great movie moments.

Sean yearns for the closeness he shared with Alex once before, a wish that is granted after her near-death encounter, the bubbly teen queen now a sullen, silent introvert, clearly not herself. The pair are drawn into a chase drama enabled by rogue UFO chaser Cal (Said Taghmaoui) and driven by Federal agency head Kate (Kate Burton), their open road odyssey affording the actors space to build a warm, sincere chemistry. It also allows a further ironic nod to old-school Hollywood - Sean compares their plight to Bonnie and Clyde, to which Alex replies, “I don’t know who that is.” 

Stone opens on some thrill-inducing images of the orbs illuminating the early evening sky, before settling into a long passage of character definition and tension building - another common trait it shares with CE3K. If Stones skimps on the grand effects sequences that made Spielberg’s work so memorable, Stone doesn’t let us forget that his characters are always being watched. His expert use of drone footage to capture the ‘God’s eye’ perspective, or more precisely that of the inhabitants of the orbs, represents some of the most effective creative use of the technology yet.

In working through Spielberg’s familiar story beats, First Light plays like an American-indie-meets-X-Files spin on Romeo & Juliet; there are also some unmissable nods to John Carpenter’s Starman and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (two more ‘oldies’ the target audience won’t know), as well the inevitable and not unfounded YA comparisons that pitch it as, though remarkably better than, the Twilight series.

Also like Spielberg’s film, momentum drags a little in its third act when the G-men and their tech take over the film. It’s a minor period of disconnect in a film that mostly feels gritty, human and real, despite its otherworldly premise. First Light builds to a soaring denouement (pumped by some demographic-appropriate musical accompaniment from M83’s ‘Outro’) that reassures the audience that, in this world or beyond, we are not alone.

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