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The Bystanders – Sci-Fi London Film Festival (Film Review)

4 min read

Do you ever get the feeling that you're not in control of your own life?

Like all good sci-fi, starts with a question that most of us will have asked at one point or another. The idea that our lives are pre-determined or intra-determined in real time is nothing new, societies have been talking about fate and destiny for so long that quite a few of them have become lost civilisations since. What The Bystanders does is attempt to give a resolution to the subject by applying the familiar trope of multidimensional bureaucracy 

The Bystanders are an organisation of losers, essentially. They're recruited on the strength of having no one to miss them when they disappear into a parallel dimension and little else, and once there they're tasked with a sort of guardianship role over a person in our usual dimension. The job description isn't elaborated on too much, but there's a yearly award which suggests that improving the lives of their subjects is a preferable outcome. The dynamics between the Bystanders themselves is much like an incompetent sales team. There are territories run by insecure bosses, presiding over teams of individuals at various points on some kind of corporate ladder, identifiable by the level number on their uniforms. 

Peter Weir (Scott Haran) is recruited by Frank () following the most anonymous of birthdays at his day job. In fact, he seems to have led the most anonymous of lives in general, with little to show for it other than a claim to have been the second most promising chess protege in his own frame of reference as a child. What follows is a big credit to the ingenuity behind The Bystanders

During the introduction before its UK Premiere at Sci-Fi London 2023, director spoke briefly about the process to secure funding for the film. The long and short of it is that it was turned down on the basis of it needing such a big budget. In true DIY spirit, the focus turned to make it on a micro-budget in an effort to prove, if nothing else, that it is possible to make without considerable financial backing. 

An expositional sequence between Peter and Frank happens very early on, and it's almost like a video game tutorial where Peter is being guided through his new powers as a Bystander – teleporting probably being the most significant – and straight away the point is proven. We see two characters doing otherworldly things which likely would have been a generic CGI insert in a bigger production. In The Bystanders, it's all stylised in such a way that allows it to be made cheaply, but it doesn't look cheap at all. It comes across entirely as a creative choice, and without the prior knowledge that it was made in a way that required such a solution, it wouldn't have stood out as anything out of the ordinary. 

When John Carpenter made Dark Star the memorable symbol of it became the spray-painted beachball alien, despite all of the amazing achievements of near-zero budget filmmaking that came with it. The Bystanders somehow manages to pull off the highs and the “how did they do that?”s without submitting to anything quite as egregious against it. 

With a swift 94-minute run time, there is a feeling that it could have done with an extra twenty minutes or so. The heart of the story comes from a typically British love plot between the subjects of Peter and Frank – Luke (Andi Jashy) and Sarah (Georgia Mabel Clarke), where the two of them meet following some interference from their Bystanders. Luke is a loveable loser while Sarah is a middle-class girl from Kent who's just lost her job, and they find a connection in one another during a time when both of their lives are changing due to the interferences that they aren't aware of. The problem is that it all falls into place with so much expediency that it's difficult to recognise just how much influence their Bystanders have had on their character's arcs. Both of them have to do so much independently for their Bystanders' plans to work, and it feels as if it have been a more cohesive story if we were allowed more time for their dastardly plans to come together in less convenient ways. 

That said, what it absolutely nails, is its tone. Despite being a brand-new film from a debut director set in the modern day, it feels like something that we could have caught on Channel 4 at any point in the last twenty years. It's almost as if Spaced went head-first into a collision with The IT Crowd, by way of a Black Mirror plot that was rejected on the basis of being far too sweet and charming. In the best possible way.  

The Bystanders uses a familiar trope to answer a familiar question, but it does it in a way that's funny and nostalgic while remaining poignant and fresh. It's carried by a cast and crew who have willed it into existence, and the result is absolute proof that no budget is too small for filmmakers with such big ideas.

The Bystanders had its UK Premiere at the Closing Gala of Sci-Fi London Film Festival 2023