“Undergods” is a sci-fi fantasy of a dark and dystopian Europe, where “family” and feeling have broken down and the Putinesque rule of an uncaring State and its predatory oligarchs have numbed the people and normalized the awful.
Chino Moya’s film is designed to summon up the Good Ol’Days of Dystopia. It “feels” like “Delicatessen” without the laughs or “Blade Runner” without a plot.
The film has a buy-in reminiscent of what Andre Malraux said about Marxism, a willingness to “feel” proletarian. Dystopian sci-fi sometimes puts “feeling” the darkness — literal, and in tone — above other considerations, and plenty of fans go for that.
“Undergods” has a gloomy post-lapsarian Soviet look, downtrodden players cast for their ability to dress down and look homely — Eastern European sci-fi as envisioned by Mike Leigh.
All well and good, as far as that goes. But this is right on the edge of incoherent.
The madrileño Moya, making his feature film directing debut, uses something like the “Tales of (E.T.A.) Hoffmann” as his organizing principle. The German Poe’s horror/fantasy stories are referenced — a character is reading him — for a reason. The interlocking episodes of the film are grim and related in Hoffman/Brothers Grimm story-telling form.
A father tells his little girl about a rich, unscrupulous “merchant” (Eric Godon) who screws over the wrong inventor (Jan Bijvoet), who then kidnaps the merchant’s daughter (Tanya Reynolds).
A couple of “bring out your dead” body-haulers (veteran British character actor Johann Myers of “The Lost City of Z,” “Bank Job,” and Géza Röhrig of “Resistance” and “Son of Saul”) tell each other stories that tie into the bodies they pick up off the street. Not everyone in their “load” is “dead.”
“Sell the big one for meat!”
Down the rabbit hole we go into a grey alternative reality where industrial wasteland bleeds into urban ruin, where a new neighbor (Ned Dennehy) gets locked out of his apartment, feeds paranoia as he threatens to break up the marriage of the couple (Hayley Carmichael, Michael Gould) who took him in.
Human “meat” marketing shows up, hard against a visit to a suspiciously efficient “Star Sugarless Gum” factory.
Is Star Sugarless made from “PEE-pul?”
The stories are “entropy” writ large, with subtexts about the breakup of the family, the collapse of institutions with only their imposing and impersonal architecture and a scattered, demoralized populace left behind, carrying on in this New Normal.
That’s an arresting backdrop. And I like the Kafkaesque vibe of it all.
But there’s “cryptic” and “vague” and then “incoherent to everyone else” and unfortunately, Moya sets up shop at that end of the spectrum.
MPA Rating: unrated
Cast: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, Michael Gould, Hayley Carmichael, Eric Godon, Tanya Reynolds, Jan Bijvoet, Kate Dickie and Burn Gormley.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Chino Moya. A Gravitas Venture release.
Running time: 1:32