US DVD: 23 Jul 2013
Vanishing Waves is a Lithuanian science fiction film from director Kristina Buozyte, but don’t let the term “science fiction” put you off. There are no space ships or invading alien monsters here, no ray guns, doomsday weapons or post-apocalyptic hordes of flesh-eating cockroaches or pigeons (or human beings, for that matter). This story eschews such clichés, ignoring outer space in favor of the “inner space” exploration that was prevalent in written sci-fi in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Featuring a washed-out color palette, understated performances and long stretches without dialogue, this is much more art-house film than summer blockbuster.
The story is simple enough on the surface. Neurological researcher Lukas is involved in a project in which his unconscious mind attempts to link up, via a net of electrodes, with that of a comatose woman, Aurora. As he enters a mental state akin to lucid dreaming, Lukas finds that he is able to make contact with Aurora’s unconscious—he can, in effect, see, hear and feel her, and she him. She happens to be a lovely and voluptuous woman without a lot of clothes on, and he is a young guy in his 20s, so the expected happens.
Lukas and Aurora meet repeatedly over the next several weeks, their relationship blossoming through several phases of carnality into something rather more cerebral. However, this progression is not without side effects on Lukas back in the “real” world. His colleagues, supervisor and girlfriend all sense a change in him, but since he lies about his experiences in Aurora’s unconscious, they remain none the wiser.
Events become increasingly strange during these encounters, and sinister elements begin to emerge. Without giving away too many details, suffice it to say that Lukas’s and Aurora’s interactions become increasingly fraught, beset by pressures both internal and external. Eventually, something needs to give.
This precis threatens to make the film sound like something of a thriller. It’s not. If anything, it drags in spots, as Lukas spends much of his time wandering around in Aurora’s unconscious looking confused. But the film is smart enough to know that it can’t repeat itself too often, so it changes up Lukas’s experience a bit each time, allowing for a gradual shift in tone as the movie goes along. While there is an expected surge in emotion around the climax of the movie, it remains shrouded in ambiguity to some degree, leaving the viewer plenty of room to interpret what’s going on.
Visually, the movie is a striking experience. As mentioned, the colors tend to be muted, with Lukas’s “real-world” experiences dominated by washed-out grays and swathes of sterile laboratory white. Even his colleagues are rather a drab bunch, with much gray hair, faint beard stubble and rumpled lab coats. Aurora’s unconscious is a considerably warmer place, often lit in pale yellows and oranges, but with plenty of shadow as well. Misty bodies of water are prevalent.
This mindscape allows for the creation of striking images. At one point near the climax of the film, Lukas chases Aurora through the darkness, his naked figure softly lit from behind, her own a ghostly form in the middle distance. The camera follows Lukas as he chases her, a phantom that flickers in and out of shadow in an uncut shot that lasts for several minutes. There is no dialogue, only an ominous synth score gurgling along underneath.
That score is another strong presence in the film. There are long, long wordless passages throughout, and the music serves to heighten the sense of otherness without being bombastic or overpowering. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—another unconventional “sci-fi” movie that usurped expectations with, among other things, long wordless stretches and striking musical choices—Vanishing Waves is primarily a non-verbal experience. The images and score combine to convey most of what the viewer needs to take in; the occasional dialogue sequences tend to be contained in scenes with the scientists or girlfriend, who remain outsiders to what Lukas, and the viewer, experiences.
Curious viewers will want to grab Artsploitation’s fine two-disc release of this film. Besides containing the movie in a pristine print, there are copious extras, primarily the debut film by director Kristina Buozyte, The Collectress. This is a full-length feature devoid of sci-fi elements, but is slick and stylish in its own right, and unsettling in its own way. Its inclusion here makes this a two-for-one deal, and a package that’s hard to beat.
Additionally, there is a seven-minute interview with the director and a considerably longer featurette on the making of the movie, plus a 12-page booklet containing another interview with Buozyte conducted by Artsploitation. In all, this is an outstanding set of extra features.
For science fiction fans who, like myself, are less than current on the latest developments of Eastern European cinema, this package is likely to be a revelation. It’s certainly not for everybody, but it’s trying to do something different, which is reason enough to pay attention. Here’s hoping that Artsploitation plans a long series of such inventive releases.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.
// Short Ends and Leader
"Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a darkly funny and philosophical cyberpunk locked-room thriller that tangles with the greatest sci-fi puzzle: What does it mean to be human?READ the article