Reach for the Skyline

Other Worlds Austin Film Festival goes above and Beyond

Call it fantasy fighting. Action film fans always wondered, could John Wayne beat Gary Cooper in a barroom brawl? Would Arnie get the better of JCVD? Now sci-fi flick Beyond Skyline pitches two cult fighters – The Raid's fleet-footed Iko Uwais vs. the granite-fisted Frank Grillo (The Purge series, Wheelman) – in hand-to-hand, and stick-to-knife, combat. Writer/director Liam O'Donnell never planned to make a martial-arts movie, but as he told Grillo when Uwais came aboard, "I have to have you guys fight now."

O'Donnell's new film opens science-fiction film festival Other Worlds Austin this Friday. The first movie in the series, 2010's Skyline, was a bizarre aberration: a $10 million alien invasion movie that became a low-key international success, taking back more than seven times its budget. There was sequel buzz since its release, and finally O'Donnell, who wrote the original, took over the director's chair previously shared by the Strause brothers, Colin and Greg. Yet Beyond Skyline is not a straight sequel: Instead, it is a parallel story, taking place elsewhere and with other people, that intersects with the original. "You could do a supercut of the two," said O'Donnell.

That was the plan from 2009, when he wrote the first film: At the time, he was obsessed with the TV series Lost, and its innovative storytelling techniques. O'Donnell said it has always been in the DNA of the Skyline franchise ("I still get a kick from calling it a franchise," he added). When he started drafting a sequel, he was inspired by one very specific episode: season 2's "The Other 48 Days," where the camera turns from the main cast to the other survivors, the "Tailies," and what they had been doing for the duration of the show. "They rush through the entire first season in one episode, so we thought, 'Oh, we can do that in the first act.' There are so many cool things in the first movie, but the characters are all stuck in one place. So there's a lot of fun to be had if we're down in the street, and some of these things coincided, and the characters met up."

He even set the seeds in the original, with the old cast looking out of a window to see insurgents fighting and dying as they push back against the aliens. "That was going to be the other group, but I had to abandon some of that very strict continuity." Instead, the action settles on Grillo as Mark, an LAPD cop who gets scooped up and finds himself fighting against, and then alongside, Uwais' alien killer in rural Laos.

If the second-act setting seems like a radical change, that was deliberate. O'Donnell didn't want to just shift the action from one international city to another, "so I was looking for a more organic place," he said. Although filming took place in Uwais' native Indonesia, setting the story in Laos appealed to O'Donnell "because the American characters would have some history. ... There would be a little bit of commentary on American foreign policy, and the nature of what an alien invasion is. Certain countries have experienced this, to a certain extent."

Other Worlds Austin Film Festival

This fest celebrates all things sci-fi, with four days of shorts and narrative films. Badges range from $50-85. @Flix Brewhouse, Thu.-Sun., Dec. 7-10.

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