4 brilliant short films on their way to becoming features

Adam Sandler’s ode to ‘80s gaming, Pixels, is getting savaged by critics. That’s not unexpected, given that this is a Happy Madison joint. But it is a damn shame, and not just because the notion behind Pixels—confused aliens attack Earth using deadly versions of vintage gaming icons such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong—is loaded with potential.

No, Pixels is doubly disappointing because it began life in a form that proved just how much fun the concept could be. Once upon a time, Pixels was a rather excellent short film. Before the dark times. Before Adam Sandler.

Once Pixels went viral in 2010, Hollywood eventually called on writer/director Patrick Jean. Five years later, the feature version of Pixels is finally hitting theaters, starring Sandler alongside Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan, and Kevin James. With a current Rotten Tomatoes rating of 17 percent, Pixels will remain yet another cautionary tale of how to ruin a good thing, even if Futurama did it first—and better.

Below you’ll find four more acclaimed short films that are currently being developed into feature films. Any one of them could make for an amazing full-length movie, and we’ve got a stubborn optimistic streak here at the Dot, so we’re holding out hope that at least a couple of them will eventually hit the big screen in a form that’s actually worthy of their origins. Check ‘em out.

1) The Leviathan

The Leviathan was a huge story earlier this year, after it went viral in March, racking up over a million views on Vimeo in less than a week. And it’s no surprise: The Leviathan is a slick and stylish proof-of-concept short that plays like a futuristic version of Moby-Dick. Created by director Ruairi Robinson (The Last Days on Mars) and screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club), The Leviathan is set in a time when humanity has colonized many worlds, but where interstellar travel is fueled by a substance that can only be harvested from enormous, flying creatures we’ll just call “space whales,” because that’s totally what they are. Clocking in at just shy of four minutes, The Leviathan follows a group of would-be Ahabs as they hunt one of the enormous alien beasts through thick cloud banks of an alien world. Needless to say, the beasties don’t go down easy, and given that the creatures can easily bite the hunters’ vessels clean in half, clearly space whaling should rightfully claim the title of The Deadliest Catch.

The Leviathan netted a pair of big fish of its own shortly after going viral earlier this year, landing both Neill Blomkamp and Simon Kinberg as executive producer and producer, respectively. Blomkamp became one of the hottest names in big-screen science fiction after adapting his own short film into the cult hit District 9. His follow-ups, Elysium and Chappie, have dimmed his star a bit, but he’s still a talent worth watching. Kinberg co-wrote both the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse and Fantastic Four, and is executive producer on Star Wars Rebels. Shortly after Blomkamp and Kinberg signed on, Fox paid a reported six figures for Uhls’ Leviathan spec script, and you can bet that probably wouldn’t have happened without the strength of this brief but evocative short.

But will it be good? There’s no real story on display in the short, just an impressive concept and bit of world-building. No question, The Leviathan has the makings of some truly epic set pieces, but it will all come down to execution, and giving us the story and characters to anchor those amazing visuals.

2) Realm

We’ve seen exorcisms play out in countless movies and TV shows over the years, to the point where it would be genuinely surprising if somebody found a way to put a new spin on the ritual. Enter director Scott Speer, writer John Swetnam, and Realm, a gripping action short that pushes all the Latin incantation into the background in favor of imagining the battle being waged behind the walls of reality for the soul of the possessed. Adelaide Kane stars as a young woman with the power to save those souls by entering another realm and taking on the demons face-to-really-ugly-face. You can keep your prayer beads and holy water: she’s packing a broadsword and skintight leather. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer if she raided Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld wardrobe.

Realm became white-hot this past March, around the same time as The Leviathan. And as with Leviathan, Realm had an accompanying spec script to hand off to parties whose interest was piqued. The full-length screenplay was actually penned by Vampire Diaries writer Rebecca Sonnenshine, based on the concept by Speer and Swetnam. Apparently it was a good combination of talents, because Relativity paid mid-six figures to nab the script. Speer will return to direct the feature-length version, and Swetnam is aboard as a producer.

But will it be good? They say there are no new stories, but Realm is a refreshing repackaging of ideas, combined in a way that has real potential. And unlike The Leviathan, Realm actually introduces an intriguing protagonist, if only briefly, and it’s easy to imagine her story entertaining us for two hours. Honestly, it could even stretch well beyond that. Realm seems like a concept that’s far better suited for a longform TV series than the relative brevity of a movie. But, then again, I’m sure Relativity is hoping for a franchise. It’s certainly within the realm of possibilities.

3) Controller

“There is a girl that can control everything… There is a company that wants this control… And there is a boy that wants this girl…” That’s the emotional spine lurking beneath Controller, a high-concept short that’s custom-made for the big screen. We’ve seen heists and breakouts and rescue missions, but what if the girl being rescued is the one pulling all the strings? And not just in a “she made the plan” kind of way. No, we’re talking about “psychically puppeteering her boyfriend through a violent, one-man assault on her captors” situation. This girl—this controller—is tired of being exploited by the company in question, so she politely requests her man swing by to rescue her, or at least get his meatsuit within range of her abilities so she can take the wheel and punch, kick, and force-choke his/her way through several floors of masked company drones eager to keep her locked up.

Writer/director Saman Kesh posted his proof-of-concept short Controller to Vimeo in 2014, and Fox scooped up the feature rights this past April. Kesh says on Controller’s Vimeo page that he will be adapting and directing the feature-length version, but Deadline’s story says Alev Aydin will be writing the screenplay. Either way, if done right, Controller could play like the next Matrix.

But will it be good? In addition to nicely flipping the heist/prison-break script, Controller is a rather ingenious inversion of the whole “damsel in distress” cliche. I can see some potential visual shorthand where you could alternate between the helmeted boyfriend and the girl kicking ass, a dual stylistic conceit that would serve as a reminder of who’s in charge and give the female lead more to do than just stand on a box and narrate for 90 minutes. There are also plenty of questions about the girl and the nature of her powers to explore, not to mention that enigmatic ending and the lingering question of whether this dude is even really her boyfriend, or just another tool she’s using for her own purposes.

4) Lights Out

Lights Out is unquestionably one of the most effective bits of short-form horror I’ve ever seen, a brilliantly paced exercise in escalation culminating in a punchline that may well leave you sleeping with all the lights on weeks after seeing it. David F. Sandberg’s pants-shitting short won him the Best Director nod at the 2013 Who’s There? short film competition, and it’s been carving a trail through social media ever since. It plays on several instinctual fears: that there’s something bad in the darkness, that you just saw something frightening out of the corner of your eye, and our sanity-preserving tendency to reassure ourselves that the shadow was just some old coats hanging at the end of the hall. Still, probably best to burn down the house and move to that planet from Pitch Black, where night only falls every 22 years.

Honestly, it was pretty much a given that Hollywood would sink its claws into Lights Out eventually. And sure enough, New Line has a feature-length version in the works with Sandberg returning to direct, James Wan producing, and Eric Heisserer writing the script. Heisserer wrote both the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot and the unnecessary Thing prequel, but he also wrote a rather clever spec script/bit of metafiction called The Dionaea House, so here’s hoping he finds a way to supersize Lights Out without robbing it of its power. We don’t need another Mama on our hands. Wan’s involvement is also heartening. While I’m no fan of the Saw franchise, the one-two punch of Insidious and The Conjuring has more than redeemed him in my eyes.

But will it be good? In a word: no. It’s at least very, very likely that the Lights Out movie will be yet another reminder that some things simply don’t need to be artificially inflated to feature length. Part of why Lights Out works so well is because there isn’t a wasted frame in its 2:42 runtime. Every second ratchets the tension higher and higher, until that final payoff—a visual that, frankly, looks kind of goofy when removed from its context—is enough to send even the most jaded of viewers scrambling behind the couch. If there’s an upside, Sandberg certainly deserves a shot at a big-screen directing career, so hopefully Lights Out will earn him that, if nothing else.

Screengrab via Scott Speer/Vimeo

David Wharton

David Wharton

David Wharton is a journalist and film critic with over 15 years of experience. His reviews for the Daily Dot focus on original movies and series produced by streaming entertainment services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. He lives in Texas, where he works as the online editor of DSNews.com