Low-budget films that are set in space incredibly challenging to pull off. Given the set design, special effects, costumes, and make-up associated with producing an engrossing film set in another universe, the challenge isn’t to produce an authentic world but to produce a film that doesn’t look like Dr. Who circa 1965. And while campy sensibilities are wonderful, there is something unique about creating an enthralling, sophisticated world that audiences can believe in. In the Shadow of Dara does this delightfully, producing a gripping space action thriller with a svelte runtime of fourteen minutes. Drawing from a host of science fiction films, from 12 Monkeys to Star Trek, In the Shadow of Dara skillfully and successfully creates an exciting story, sympathetic characters, and disturbing enemies with more success than some mainstream science fiction films.
In 2280, Earth has been essentially destroyed by a race of dangerous, disreputable aliens called Shadows. A renegade band of humans finds the only way to save Earth: to go back in time to rescue the one who tells Earth’s coordinates to the invaders. The earthlings attempt to get this other alien to wake up from his fugue state, in which Shadows are attempting to extract this information. The fact that his dream world is a banal, British corporate office is both absolutely absurd and surprisingly creepy. It’s a credit to the director and crew that the film works so well given its narrative and aesthetic constraints; the acting is good, the dialogue is artful, and the plot is clear, even given the film’s short length. Particularly, the film’s interior spaces are empty and blank—the dream space of the office, for example, and the rough interior of an intergalactic spaceship—that could be anywhere or everywhere without seeming stagey. The digital special effects are judiciously well done, in that it keeps primarily to makeup and costume with only brief flashes of CGI. All of these elements serve the narrative rather than distract from it.
Shadow’s primary drawback may be that its skillful execution obfuscates any potential allegorical or thematic meaning from this potential world. Because of the film’s short running length and its tightly constructive narrative, the film doesn’t give us time to luxuriate over the traditional themes of science fiction or give us space to map the contemporary world onto this future apocalyptic scenario. Does the film concern itself with the slippery distinction between dream and reality? Does it see a future apocalypse? In my favorite moment, one alien notices that humans now have guns, which means that they’ve been keeping an eye on, distantly, for some time. Are we pets? Workers? A zoo? In the Shadow of Dara gestures towards a larger story, one in which humans are only bit players, but doesn’t linger long enough to flesh out that part of the story, and it may be the most interesting part.