EmbersReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/25/16 12:25:24
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: The shots of present-day ruins that open "Embers" are a reminder of sorts that worlds end all the time, on the scale of individual hopes and dreams, though those tiny apocalypses are often part of a greater calamity. That perspective is what makes this particular movie work - it has its one great disaster, but has the curiosity to ponder all of the person-sized ones that result.Those shots of run-down buildings soon give way to the people inside one as a guy (Jason Ritter) and a girl (Iva Gocheva) awaken with no memory, but they can speak well enough and reason that the matching handkerchiefs tired to their wrists are a symbol that they are meant to be together. Elsewhere, a young boy (Silvan Friedman) wandering alone crosses paths with an older man, at least until they encounter someone whose lack of personal history has him practically feral (Karl Glusman). James Robertson (Tucker Smallwood) is a bit more stable; he literally wrote the book on cognition before the pandemic and has devised systems to keep afloat while trying to train his memory. And in an underground bunker, Miranda (Greta Fernandez) lives with her father (Roberto Cots), regularly quizzed by a computer to make sure that she has not been affected by what happened outside seven years ago, practicing the cello, and bored out of her mind.
Amnesia as an infectious disease is not a particularly new concept, but it's rarely as well thought-out as it is in Embers, even if director Claire Carré and co-writer Charles Spano don't put all their research and backstory on the screen directly. The most intriguing idea in the film, and the one which gives it a hidden foundation, is the implication that many people knew what was coming and made what preparations they could. And while we're trained, to a certain extent, to admire the preparations of Dr. Robertson and Miranda's father for being practical and possibly clever enough to at least partially beat this disease back, the simple step taken by the young couple who guess each other's names every morning seems the most important - they probably couldn't do what those other characters did, but maybe this kept them from becoming like "Chaos" (as the raging man is listed in the credits).
Positing this lack of day-to-day continuity allows the filmmakers to dissect elemental humanity. Chaos is the the animal part of our brains, the fight-or-flight impulses with nothing to override them, while Miranda's father is his opposite, the raw intellect with little to tether it to anything else. He looks at the art he has stored away, teaches his daughter to play centuries-old music, and creates a context-free stasis that is incomplete without the extreme volatility outside (he also fears losing Miranda the way he lost his wife and won't let go, but he can be more than one thing). The lovers, in their way, represent the beginning of civilization, a recognition that there is more to life than mere survival, but they are in many ways only the first step of evolution. It's not until the boy and the teacher intersect that things start to take shape, as the pair try to overcome their barriers so that he can potentially pass knowledge on and both can connect in an emotional way.
It makes their sections some of the more resonant, especially since the actors are both turning in fine performances that are easy to hold on to. Tucker Smallwood is a veteran of dozens of authority figures, and he carries that commanding presence with him, but there's something unusual and delightful about early scenes where he is taking on the rules of teacher and student simultaneously, not remembering the knowledge he used to have but retaining the skills of presenting it to an audience, even if that is himself. Silvan Friedman never has any lines - language must be a difficult skill to pick up in these circumstances - but he manages to portray a kid's inherent selfishness without raising too many concerns that the boy may be a monster, and a pure enjoyment of discovery and gratitude for a father figure when one comes along.
The rest of the cast is good as well; it just takes a bit longer to appreciate because they're sick in the same place in one way or another. That's the irony of what Greta Fernandez and Roberto Cots play, the ones who seem like they could be dynamic but are in fact seemingly locked in place. Fernandez especially has a tough role, finding a spot where "resentful teenager" becomes a bit more despite the extreme situation. Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva handle their segments nicely, capturing a bit of magic about the pair constantly falling in love but also capturing the imperfections Carré & Spano give them, making them individuals. Karl Glusman doesn't hold back as Chaos.
He gets one of the more interesting bits, though, as Carré flips the script for a bit to use this world to show how yesterday's monster can become today's victim, and the actual action remains just as monstrous. The filmmakers also find a bunch of terrific locations that allow them to do some fairly impressive spot effects considering the film's scale, which also keeps the film's world-building in check: It's always just enough to make everything hold together, but never overshadows the story's present.Which seems entirely fitting, given the world it's presenting. That lets it get rough at times, and some sci-fi fans might prefer a strong central story, but "Embers" is pretty impressive for a first feature, an intriguing discovery on the festival circuit.
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