The Bystanders review: Seann Walsh leads quirky sci-fi comedy

Scott Haran as Peter (left) and Seann Walsh as Frank (right) in The Bystanders.
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Director Gabriel Foster Prior’s debut feature, starring Seann Walsh, presents an interesting sci-fi world – here’s our The Bystanders review.

For his debut feature film, director Gabriel Foster Prior has fashioned a sci-fi comedy that’s really pretty unique. Riffing on the traditional concept of guardian angels, The Bystanders asks ‘what if guardian angels were just incredibly lonely people chosen to do a job?’ And, perhaps more importantly, ‘what if they’re bored shitless doing it?’ What follows is part sci-fi, part buddy comedy and part workplace satire – and it’s a very British film, too.

Scott Haran, best known for taking the leading role in teen TV show Wizards Vs Aliens, plays Peter Weir – a former child chess prodigy-turned-forgettable IT guy. His complete lack of social life leads him to be chosen for the Bystanders by Seann Walsh’s Frank. Walsh and Foster Prior have collaborated many times before, and here the director (alongside co-writer Jack Hughes) has written the comedian an interesting role that allows him to let loose. Frank is a maverick, content to bend the rules. There’s really only one of those, described in amusing fashion by Marek Larwood’s Norm – while the Bystanders themselves are invisible, objects they move aren’t. In short – be careful how you meddle in your charge’s life. Don’t be noticed.

As Peter is given the task of watching over Sarah (newcomer Georgia Mabel Clarke), who works at a pretentious record company, he becomes unlikely friends with Frank, who watches the lazy, chronically unemployed Luke (Andi Jashy). So unemployed is he that he lists his Call Of Duty achievements on his CV. Frank sees the opportunity to escape boredom and Peter finds something to once again overachieve in as the two decide to swap charges and better their lives. The plan doesn’t quite go, well, according to plan.

Not only is this an interesting sci-fi comedy with shades of Doctor Who, it’s also clearly made by movie nerds. From the outset, The Bystanders presents its narrative in engaging visual ways, with an opening scene shot in black and white (it plays with colour throughout) and rotoscope animation used in place of visual effects when magical teleportation skills are needed. All of this reinforces the slightly off-kilter world Foster Prior has created, and as a result his movie is always fun to watch.

Rotoscope animation of Scott Haran as Peter in The Bystanders.

The Bystanders has an offbeat, slightly quirky brand of comedy on account of how varied its story is. Seann Walsh excels in moments of chaotic tampering as he meddles in mortal affairs; Sarah’s egotistical boss (Tom Clegg) in eye-rollingly amusing as we see the downside of high-flying London careers, and Andi Jashi gets in some well-delivered jokes as Luke finds an affinity for stand-up comedy. Scott Haran acts as a perfect foil throughout, as Peter struggles to let go of his straight-laced ways – his uptight personality does result in Haran having limited opportunities to express much range, though.

While Foster Prior has enlisted several familiar faces to take part in his film – and utilises them well – he also allows the human characters, played by new actors, to shine. Amongst the comedy, Georgia Mabel Clarke and Andi Jashi get some very real, human moments. In embracing the traditions of sci-fi film, The Bystanders also tackles some serious topics and has an important core message about what really counts as living. Both the Bystanders and their charges are isolated and lonely, and this is a movie that encourages people to turn their lives around and grasp friendships and opportunities when they arise.

The story remains focused on Peter and Frank, however, and Sarah and Luke’s arcs are rather abruptly dropped as the film races to finish in just over 90 minutes. The ending feels a bit rushed, but there’s no denying that Gabriel Foster Prior’s first feature is inventive, interesting, and rather unique. We’ll be watching to see what he does next.

The Bystanders is in cinemas on 3rd November.

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