As the oldest film school in the U.S. — and the alma mater of filmmakers as accomplished and diverse as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson — USC Cinematic Arts established a reputation for skilled craftsmanship, rich community and compelling storytelling. This week we spotlight their newest generation of filmmakers, working in a wide range of genres and styles.
Genghis Khan is in the twilight of his life, as well as the waning days of his time as a conqueror. After spending much of his life creating the Mongol Empire, he finds himself somewhere in Eurasia during the medieval era, looking for more plunder and conquests.
Seeking one more frontier, he encounters a golden telescope during one ransacking. He mistakes it for a magical weapon, but the wizard who created it tells him it’s only for looking and invites the legendary warrior to peer through it, where Genghis beholds the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Then in a final fit, Genghis drinks from the wizard’s potions — and finds himself on a quest he never expected.
This ambitious, gorgeously realized sci-fi adventure short, by director Kerry Yang and writer Steve Emmons, is packed with stunning vistas, considerable technical prowess, suspenseful pacing and dazzling images that draw marvel and wonder from viewers. But it also has a genuine metaphysical streak that leverages the epic scale of the visuals to provoke a sense of the mystical and spiritual.
The initial spirit of the craftsmanship harkens back to great adventure films like the Indiana Jones franchise, with a swashbuckling sense of rhythm and an almost puckish sense of playfulness. Every element comprising the film’s sense of craft is superlative, from the beautifully sculpted moonscapes to the compelling performances by veteran actors James Hong and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa to the sound design and score.
Watching Genghis push himself to find just one more thing to conquer is pure cinematic fun, complete with a rollicking playfulness characteristic of the golden age of B-movies with the production values and artistic accomplishment of a prestige picture. But as the story unfolds and enters into the sci-fi realm, it takes on a true auteurist eccentricity and explores a more idiosyncratic direction in the plot, giving Genghis unexpected shadings as a character and a symbol.
Taking a larger than life legendary historical figure like Genghis Khan out of his earthly context and into the vacuum of space deconstructs his legacy, most especially his thirst to conquer. Who is Genghis Kehn, then, when there is nowhere else for him to dominate? He must then confront himself, as well as the notion of his own mortality — for death is the frontier that no man can ever conquer, no matter who he is.
Wildly entertaining, unique and oddly resonant, “Genghis Khan Conquers the Moon” uses its epic scale not just to provoke enjoyment, but to foster a sense of humanity’s smallness. When faced with the endless deep of space, even a man of Genghis’s renown shrinks to become a mere speck. We cannot help but question man’s innate striving in the face of the great eternity of the universe, which renders everything insignificant in the end.