Atlantis deftly captures the way overarching forces, like war and corporate industry, rob people of their very selves, it rarely re-forges their identities or imbues them with enough humanity to present what’s truly at stake.
A languid dystopian chronicle of life after war, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis frames survivors and workers at an arm’s length from the audience, and at a remove from their own identities. It’s stupendous as commentary and often frigid as human drama, an approach that works both in service of its political examination, as well as to its detriment as engaging cinema. The result is fascinating, if protracted document of dashed dreams, and a liberated Ukraine immersed in so much death and decay that horror itself becomes numbing.
According to its opening captions, Atlantis is set “One Year After The War” — after the ongoing Crimea conflict — in the year 2025. Even its fantasy of freedom is so dulled, and its outlook so grim, that it cannot conceive of an end to contemporary violence for several more years (the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in 2019). The film is about the ways military occupation is often an occupation of the soul, and it casts, in its leading roles, real volunteers and soldiers in lieu of professional actors. Chief among them is Andrii Rymaruk as Serhiy, a PTSD-afflicted former combatant who, after being blamed for a co-worker’s suicide at a smelting plant, resumes life amidst the deadly conflict, or rather its aftermath, and joins up with a volunteer group who exhumes and identifies war corpses left behind by both sides.
The film runs 106 minutes, but is composed of only a few dozen lengthy shots, most of them entirely static and presented at a distance. This theatrical quality often robs its characters of facial features and expressions — these are, once again, not professional performers projecting for the back row, but people whose wartime experiences have no doubt carved a hole within their very being, which they often crawl into as they lumber in silence. The onus, it seems, is on the audience to lean forward and, quite fittingly, exhume the characters’ histories and personalities.
The opening scene is both arresting and haunting, employing overhead thermal imaging of what appears to be a war crime. The people involved, both the victims and the perpetrators, are but shapeless forms, their red and yellow heat glowing in opposition to their grim, blue surroundings. Atlantis only uses this thermal camera one other time, but the rest of the film is told through tales of heat and light, wherein even silent, extended moments centre living bodies against the unforgiving cold — the snowy landscape, and the shapeless remains of the dead.
Shapelessness is a key facet of the film’s visual approach. An early scene features Serhiy and a co-worker reenacting military drills and shootouts against targets in the distance, which, though shaped vaguely like people, are black and formless — mere silhouettes. Serhiy, too, is rendered a silhouette for most of the film, especially when captured against a factory backdrop. This futuristic Ukraine has been engulfed by private industrialization; its landscape is positively Blade Runner-esque, with chimneys and towering structures emitting smoke and flame, and shots of labouring workers awash in shadow as they’re regaled by the false reassurance of rich factory owners, whose giant faces tower over them on enormous screens.“Was the war even worth it?” we’re forced to wonder, as Serhiy moves from one form of dehumanization to the next.
One snaking long-take, in particular, feels reminiscent of Children of Men, following Serhiy up the dilapidated remains of a building as he searches for bodies, though it swaps screams and chaotic gunfire for devastating silence without reprieve. There isn’t even a single note of music. It would have clashed, after all, with the broken piano opposite which Serhiy eventually sits, in mournful reflection.
Aesthetically, the film arrives fully formed and keeps building on itself, like an anthropological essay of sorts, with a distant observation of trauma as its thesis statement. On one hand, it plays like an out-of-body experience, where human beings are rendered mere automatons as they’re forced to excavate recent history as if it were the ancient, mythical city of the film’s title. On the other hand, however, its penchant for presenting people at a remove is rarely augmented by moments of subjectivity. One such moment places the audience within the headspace of a character driving through a never-ending graveyard, though it lasts a mere fraction of time compared to the films other extended takes. Vasyanovych’s approach is no doubt fine-tuned — he was also the film’s editor and cinematographer — but his distant approach presents an unfortunate contradiction.
Where Atlantis deftly captures the way overarching forces, like war and corporate industry, rob people of their very selves, it rarely re-forges their identities or imbues them with enough humanity to present what’s truly at stake.
It can’t help but call the film’s very premise into question: why cast these real people if only to observe them as part of a shapeless collective, and only hint at their real experiences and psychologies? Why use the camera exclusively to imitate their dehumanization, rather than to illuminate their humanity, even if only for a few fleeting moments?
Serhiy eventually falls for a volunteer, Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), and their romance is surrounded by death and silent torment on all sides. The result is a deeply nihilistic work — your mileage may vary — and a precise one at that. Though it can’t help but place a number of barriers between its characters and the audience each time it holds on a wide shot for painfully long. There comes a certain point in any film when presenting eeriness, stillness and nothingness become artistically indulgent, a point at which characters become mere ciphers in the distance, and a point at which even the most patient viewer says “Okay, I get it… now either make me feel it or show me something more.”
Atlantis was Ukraine’s official entry in the Best International Feature category at Academy Awards 2021. It is currently screening at theof the Dharamshala International Film Festival.
Watch the Atlantis trailer here