Recently, after a long day’s work, instead of following the beaten path towards the nearest tube station and running home, I headed to the ICA to catch Alex Taylor’s Spaceship, a film promising “alien abduction, unicorns, teenage BDSM role play and Nordic metal”. A spur of the moment decision soon turned into a fated encounter. Not knowing what to expect, I found myself mesmerised, gradually floating within the orbit of a kaleidoscopic, day-glo cinematic poem. I was present at the birth of something special – fresh, fluid, authentic – a cinema for the 21st century, capturing the melancholy spirit of the millennial variety where teenagers in fluorescent vintage 80s jumpsuits and ski jackets muse on life, unicorns and vampires.
Spaceship follows alien-obsessed teen Lucidia and her cybergoth group of friends growing up in a suburban military town in South East England. Bold, wistful and unapologetically themselves, the teenagers breathe neon-coloured life into the grey commuter belt as they fantasise about escape from humdrum reality around them. Lucidia lives alone with her archeologist father, her mother having died in a mysterious swimming pool accident. One day, when Lucidia disappears in an apparent alien abduction, her grief-stricken father goes on a quest to find her in a teenage world where past and present collide and dream and reality merge.
A synergy of colour, music and poetry, the film paints a dazzling portrait of characters searching for meaning and creating worlds of their own in the process. With its dizzying montage and non-linear narrative, the film manages to find an inner force field that keeps all the orbiting parts together. The lives, stories and emotional landscapes of the different characters, no matter how far apart their worlds may seem, whether they’re unicorn-crazed teens, future squaddies or disillusioned adults, weave together into a seamless whole, united by their shared desire for escape.
A film intended as an ode to self-acceptance by the director was ruthlessly written off by mainstream media
I was lucky enough to attend one of the film’s first screenings in London and hear Alex Taylor, archeologist-turned-musician-turned director, talk about his stellar feature debut. Spaceship landed right in the heart of its audience. One guy said he’d seen the film twice, and cried both times! A woman attested to the film’s authenticity, saying how well it had captured her own adolescence. As an aspiring filmmaker, I was inspired in a way I hadn’t been before, seeing proof that new forms of cinematic image and storytelling were still possible (and doable for first-time filmmakers!)
Alas, jaded critics were quick to pounce. The film was slated in major media outlets including Londoners’ bible Time Out, with The Guardian’s stalwart Peter Bradshaw calling it “so oppressively self-indulgent that it feels like getting a knitting needle slowly jammed into your ear canal” taking offence at the film’s “dreamily self-admiring teenagers”. A film intended as an ode to self-acceptance by the director was ruthlessly written off by mainstream media for daring to be different. What’s worse, the critical backlash did not appear to be so much against the film itself, but against its exploration of a new generation of dreamers, the label-defying millennials pejoratively dubbed the “Snowflake Generation”. Reductive and, quite frankly, derogatory reviews such as Peter Bradshaw’s, which call the teenagers “dire, emo self-harmers”, are part of a wider trend of millennial bashing, a defence mechanism against the threat new generations pose to the status quo. For these generations fearlessly disrupt regressive models of thinking, leaving rainbow-coloured waves of change in their wake, blasting off into space when necessary, if only for a while…
Alex Taylor says he wants to make films “which give people the courage to love themselves in all their weirdness”. Hardly contrived and pretentious as some reviewers suggested, Spaceship dares to represent its characters in a non-formulaic way, in all their complexity, in all their weirdness and in all their beauty. Perhaps that is what intimidated mainstream media – the unbridled freedom of the characters, free from tradition and the past, dreaming of different futures and other worlds, and if all else fails, creating their own. I applaud Alex Taylor’s determination to stay true to his creative vision. Although the film was financed by Creative England, BFI and BBC Films, the director made sure that he followed through on his artistic instincts, diverging as necessary from the more traditional script originally provided to the funding bodies.
Reviews such as Peter Bradshaw’s, which call the teenagers “dire, emo self-harmers”, are part of a wider trend of millennial bashing
The result is a film that seethes with life, raw and relevant. No doubt it owes a lot to Alex Taylor’s approach to filmmaking. Taylor talked about the importance of “listening to the world” in his films and finding the people from that world to inhabit it. Before shooting, Taylor spent the summer hanging out with teenagers in Guilford and Farnborough, inhabiting and getting to know their worlds. In fact, the film is partly-improvised; with Taylor giving its incredibly talented cast of actors the freedom to experiment, even changing the narrative to incorporate aspects of the actors’ lives into the story. One of Lucidia’s friends, Alice, played by the mesmerising Tallulah Haddon, is shown in one scene taking out her goth slave boyfriend for a walk. The actor who plays the boyfriend happened to turn up to the casting sessions dressed in exactly the same way, and Taylor decided to create new scenes to fit his character. Although shot in 22 days around Aldershot, Farnborough and Guildford, it took 8 months to get the edit right and find the correct resonance between the different scenes. The effort paid off – there’s a uniting dynamic running throughout the film, sustained by a pervasive and eclectic soundtrack ranging from folk and indie to electronica, featuring music from Best Coast, Au Revoir Simone and The Incredible String Band.
Spaceship is a beautiful and at times melancholy celebration of a trailblazing generation, exploring adolescence, imagination and a search for meaning in the 21st century. Alex Taylor wanted to “make a film which had a living soul” and he succeeds. Urgent yet forward-looking, Spaceship is a breathing, vivid vessel that will transport you to the farthest corners of the galaxy.
Spaceship is now available to watch on VOD
Banner image: bfi.org.uk