“Imagine being sentient but not alive. Seeing and even knowing, but not alive. Just looking out. Recognizing but not being alive. A person can die and still go on. Sometimes what looks out at you from a person’s eyes maybe died back in childhood.” This quote from Philip K. Dick‘s near-future sci-fi novel, “A Scanner Darkly,” could very well be applied to Valentyn Vasyanovych’s sordid, military apocalypse film, “Atlantis,” and, in many ways, also Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi‘s slow cinema masterpiece, “The Tribe,” which – this critic was unsurprised to learn – Vasyanovych was the DP of; approximately 16 minutes into “Atlantis” (Ukraine’s official International Oscar entry for the upcoming Academy Awards) fans of the 2014 Ukrainian sign language film may start to suspect the creative productions might be related. Primarily captured solely through static compositions contrasting evocative horizontal movement against camera stillness, “Atlantis” is an industrial SF film in perpetual mourning, an overlay of everyday mundanity’s complex layers of labor and abandonment. It’s a visceral cinematic exercise that one imagines would play much differently in a dead-quiet theater than sitting comfortably in your living room.
Like the movie Vasyanovych lensed, “Atlantis” tells its story through singular cinematographic ideas, like something between the aforementioned film and Abbas Kiarostami‘s “24 Frames,” were it to have an atmospheric narrative as opposed to serving as a series of flickering still images brought to life. Beginning with a hauntingly expressive birds-eye-view shot filtered through night vision, the flatness of space making it slightly difficult to discern what’s going on, until we hear dirt being shoveled. After witnessing a body being buried from what could be interpreted as some kind of infrared surveillance, the shot switches to a truck coming to a halt on the road, positioned in the same place as the gravesite from the opening shot. A group of men take eight targets out of the bed and begin staking them into the ground. We see they are playing some kind of shooting game: who can knock down all the silhouettes in prescribed order the fastest. Each man appears to be wearing combat garb, and they all seem well-trained with firearms. The tension is incredibly palpable, but also unfortunately quite telegraphed; while obviously intended to evoke discomfort (much like “The Tribe) the tactic wears out its welcome.
Set in Eastern Ukraine circa 2025, the cold landscape has become a deserted wasteland of battle remnants and dead bodies. Water is scarce, being brought between inhabited areas via trucks. We hear of a Wall being erected, but never really see this barrier/boundary given the film’s visual conceit (and, likely, the budget). Following shell-shocked soldier Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk), “Atlantis” establishes a world in ruin, one so banal it’s often masochistic; in a single take we watch a man iron his laundry, before thrusting the steamer on his own thigh in order to feel something. One of the movie’s most astounding opticals idly watches over 4 molten lava containers while cloud cover changes; magma spills down one side of a mountain while a man silently sits on atop boulder on the other, the sound design and simplicity of the symmetrical composition doing the bulk of the heavy lifting. Most all of the film’s shots remain locked in place a la “24 Frames,” but a few break this mold (some quite suddenly), and when they do the aesthetic power explodes off the screen, and the filmmaker’s vision comes more sharply into focus.
Vasyanovych isn’t particularly concerned with plot though, the movie not establishing a clear story direction until its Big Brother broadcast (the most “genre” the film ever gets) around the 30 minute mark. As a massive floating English head informs a factory of workers they are being shut down, the voice insisting that “new times are upon us,” dismissing the labor of his subjects while ensuring them they have importantly produced steel for the “soul of the world.” After his rhetoric, he directs them to a table of ceremonial alcohol. These such details are ever-present but never spelled out explicitly by the film, the audience sleepwalking through the picture’s world via dead eyes. What do these sepulchral observations eventually amount to though?
For a considerable amount of the runtime, one ruminates on whether the film is intended solely as a brutalist formal exercise, but a hardened humanity soon seeps out of its heart. Halfway through the film, we meet a new character Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), whom Sergiy lends a hand to when her volunteer truck breaks down on the side of the road. This is followed by a taxing autopsy scene and the film soon dedicates a bit too much of its resources to staging shots around medical examinations that provide some semblance of worldbuilding exposition. Information is deliberately not provided, and after a point the powerful atmosphere only goes so far. One shot/scene for example, involving heating a make-shift bath out of some sort of crane or foundry device is texturally evocative, but bland in actual practice; once you get the idea you check out of the scene, whereas every staging set-up in “The Tribe” has a purposeful beginning, middle, and end. After unloading heaps of banal misery on Sergiy and the audience, “Atlantis” shifts into an apocalyptic romance – the ending being perhaps a tad too reminiscent of Slaboshpytsky’s 2014 film, but nonetheless provides a meaningful catharsis of shared existence incarnate.
In some fashion, this angle of the movie feels like a less developed take on something like the arc of an Ana Lily Amirpour protagonist (“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” “The Bad Batch” – the art of cinematic expression being placed before accessible understanding and audience friendly ideas. However, Vasyanovych’s movie fits Paul Schrader‘s label of “transcendental film,” as opposed to Amirpour’s mixed-tape pastiche. One can argue both formalist’s works examine the damaging consequences of a world ravaged by human monstrosity in creative ways – unhinged/trigger happy vs cannibal/vampirism. Another film “Atlantis” brings to mind is Ulrich Köhler‘s “In My Room,” another deft exploration of painfully isolated miserablism and the possibility of hope come the brutalist dawn of tomorrow. Vividly enthralling until its drab ideas start to drag, “Atlantis” will certainly not be to all viewer’s tastes, but it confirms Vasyanovych as an unbelievable cinematic talent that all film lovers should be keeping a very close eye on.