Director: Claire Carré. Starring: Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva, Greta Fernandez, Tucker Smallwood, Karl Glusman, Roberto Cots. Poland, USA, 2015. IMDb: 5.3. Budget: unknown, but very small. Box office: none (direct-to-video). My rating: 2/4. Research about the human identity through memory loss epidemic in a post-apocalyptic world.
“How can a person who has no memories show up with shaved pits?”
(Bartolomeu from Portugal)
“Toward the end I was hoping to see some kind of point to justify the favorable reviews – instead the movie just ended.”
(J-J N from United States)
“…it was not that generic Hollywood garbage.”
(A1CashFlow from East Coast USA)
In the near future a virus has infected most of the population, causing a dysfunction of the short-term memory and the creation of new memories. That is the whole plot of the movie, which consists of several stories about how people survive in this world. I found “Embers” through various festival nominations (about 30 of them!) and decided to give it a try, despite quiet low Imdb rating. I couldn’t find any info about the budget, but the film raised $23,000 on Kickstarter.
“Embers” is a very minimal movie. Mostly it tries to follow the mood of “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky but with a more romantic flair. The ideas (and there are quiet many of them) are good, but the realization is not perfect. Unfortunately. When something is made of bare bones, every millimeter should be of a perfect beauty. Otherwise… don’t do it that minimal? Tarkovsky was a master of long, haunting scenes with stunning visuals, photography and music, thus, he could create endlessly slow scenes where barely nothing happened. In this debut film by Claire Carré, this kind of maturity is missing.
The reception. The biggest problem of “Embers” is that it is desperately trying to look like an art-house movie or a video installation. It reminds me of people, who do various efforts to look smart/cool/intellectual – you know, meaningful quotes and pauses, unusual look, weird hipster pants, whatever. After few minutes of talking it’s pretty easy to recognize who is trying to imitate something and who is really different. Unfortunately, “Embers” is balancing very unevenly between both types – hence the festival success where all this artsy stuff is highly adored, but low ratings from the public (80% RT / 5.3 IMDb). IndieWire praised it as “the best sci-fi discovery of the year”. Just to remind you for a sec, that in 2015 were released such sci-fi movies as “Ex Machina“, “The Lobster“, “Chappie“, “The Martian“. What are they smoking there?
Maybe these people weren’t informed that “Ex Machina” was released the same year too?
The ideas and the plot. Let’s talk about the ideas. The film consists of several story lines. A guy and a girl, who supposedly are a couple and do not recognize each other every morning as they wake up. The do not remember their names and mostly sleep in abandoned buildings. As the day goes on, they find a way to restore the connection, but the next day the story repeats. Then there is a scientist, living in the forest with his everyday reminders how to heat up the water or start the fire. He is working on the cure to defeat the virus, but he struggles to keep all the things is his mind as they fade out too soon. A young fellow, who has unstoppable rage and violence inside, pouring it on anyone and anything he sees. Finally, a father and his daughter, who managed to hide from the epidemy in the high-tech bunker and are only characters, who escaped from the virus. The daughter struggles with her boredom. Locked inside, she cannot create new memories because every day seems exactly the same to he. We don’t know more than that, the characters shown are pretty blank, just like their memory.
What I liked. The movie uses the memory loss as a metaphor, how people are locked up in a certain circle of behavior. In most circumstances, a person acts only in certain way and cannot see itself from the outside. It’s like for every event a human is programmed for several different reactions, but is it possible to overcome and do something else? This reflection reminds me of brilliant “Ex Machina” by Alex Garland (the conversation about Pollock, remember). Every character in ”Embers” represents a certain commonplace – a romantic couple, a professor, a bully, a bored daughter seeking adventure. Most probably they would follow the same behavioral patterns in a normal world. So what makes them human? Memories? The ability to create new memories?
What I didn’t like. The realization of the movie is far from being perfect. Almost everything was shot with a shaky camera and from a very close distance. This was a little embarrassing (I do not have anything against a shaky camera, but what was the purpose of it here?). The music could be much better and create more atmosphere. The location sets are great (Poland and USA), but the photography seems to be not that careful (again, why so many close-ups? Show us more of the abandoned city with abandoned streets). It’s not visually interesting enough to be a video installation either. All this prevents from enjoying the movie fully and connect with the characters who are pretty blank already. Many scenes could have been cut easily, being repetitive or just dull. So I can understand many negative reviews. The movie for sure is not just for some random moviegoer. But a science fiction and independent cinema fan (like me) may see it differently.
Final vote: 2/4
Worth watching? Maybe. If you want a slow non-Hollywood dystopia. Well, “Embers” is not completely flawed for a first step. I’d definitely have a look at the next movie by Claire Carré though, because this debut feel a little bit incomplete and too artsy. Ironically, just like its characters who are struggling to create new memories, most viewers would do the same after watching “Embers”. The ideas are there and maybe for somebody it’s worth exploring this reflection upon human identity. I’d love to enjoy it more, though.
You can stream or buy “Embers” online here.
Watch also: “Sleep Dealer” is a very curious Mexican dystopia worth checking out. Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (which I consider one of the best films ever) seems like an obvious recommendation. Debuts as “Moon” by Duncan Jones and “10 Cloverfield Lane” by Dan Trachtenberg are also excellent minimal dystopian thrillers.