Netflixable? Indonesian sci-fi “A World Without” satirizes a restrictive, oppressed and sexist culture…its own

I’ve never visited Indonesia, but traveling “Around the World with Netflix” I’ve developed a picture of what life might be like in the conservative, Islamic Asian nation.

It might not be an accurate portrait, but the Netflix films, chaste romances about a marriage-obsessed youth points to cultural norms, or government-sanctioned “ideals” that generally make for insipid cinema.

And then “A World Without” comes along and seems to be sending up the way things are.

It’s a science fiction thriller set “just after the pandemic (2030), and it’s about a cult that’s taking hold among a teen generation that sees a despoiled planet, decimated population and diminished marriage prospects as the crises of their age.

Nia di Nata’s film begins in the moony “find my perfect husband” world of too many Indonesian romances, and gradually veers into the dark corners of arranged matches, controlled lives where “we take care of everything” and a “guarantee” of “happily ever after.”

It’s heavy-handed and obvious, but I like what she’s going for here, a sort of “This is the way things are or are going, and f-that” take.

And yes, there’s a lot more profanity in this film than much of the Indonesian fare I’ve sampled.

Three girlfriends — Salina, Ulfah and Tara — chatter away on the luxury coach ride into the forests with The Light. That’s the group that’s admitted or “selected” these 16-ear-olds for a year’s commitment to work, study and be studied before an “algorithm” surprises them with their “perfect” mate.

Salina, played by Amanda Rawles, is smart (because, she wears glasses), from a wealthy family and enthusiastic. She will narrate our tale.

Ulfah (Maizura) is something of a wallflower and eager to have her “meet someone” problem solved for her.

And Tara (Asmara Abigail) is the sassy beauty and flirt of the trio, the one who admits “I’ve been dating since the sixth grade.” Why does she need help finding a mate? She’s the one who customized holographic greeting by the “Esteemed Leader” when they arrive at the jungle campus reassures her “We don’t judge based on your past.”

Tara’s gotten around, and even though she wonders “How MUCH do they know about us?” she lets us know she’s gotten used to the shaming and has joined The Light to leave all that behind.

Esteemed Leader is actually a computer guru named Ali Khan (Chicco Jerikho), and he and his wife Sofia (Ayushita) preside over this Utopia with the serene confidence of Jim and Tammy Fay.

Their offer is for a year of preparation and work commitment, a “surprise” wedding (the mates find out who their selected spouse will be at the ceremony) and a lifetime of living and working in The Light.

Tara, being a makeup maniac, is assigned to help Sofia with her makeup line. Media savvy Salina is selected for online video work and helping with “the major documentary project” on The Light that the organization is piecing together.

That’s how she’s thrown together with “nerd” and editing whiz Hafiz (Jerome Kurnia). And as she shoots intimate, behind the scenes footage of how Ali and Sofia interact, the workings of The Light, learning how it’s financed and stumbling into “I got OUT of The Light” survivors in the city while she’s filming, Salina begins to see the you-know-what.

The direction this story will take may be obvious, but di Nata throws in surprises that are conventionally melodramatic by Hollywood standards, and almost shocking by Indonesian cinema standards — violence, attempted rape, sham marriages, shady financing and cultural taboos.

Daring? Somewhat.

Our young leads are a tad dull in roles that almost let them down. The characters are interesting only in that cardboard “types” way. Salina is the most fully fleshed out, and seeing her following the “no dating or mixing with the opposite sex” rules, then starting to bend them as she hangs out, away from CCTV cameras, with Hafiz, is the most interesting story thread.

The villains are almost subtle, the stakes almost high and the climax almost believable in this pro forma cult expose with a social satire subtext.

“Almost” ends up being the byword for “A World Without,” as in this “almost” comes off.

But director and co-writer Di Nata comes close enough to sticking the landing that it’ll be fascinating to see where she goes from here, and if she’ll have to move somewhere else to make uncensored, more overt commentary on her homeland.

Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity, sexual situations

Cast: Amanda Rawles, Maizura, Asmara Abigail, Chicco Jerikho, Ayushita and Jerome Kurnia

Credits: Directed by Nia di Nata, scripted by Nia di Nata and Lucky Kuswandi. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:47

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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