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Polder
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by Jay Seaver

"Doubly unusual, but nifty as a result."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: There are likely a great many odd cross-pollinations like "Polder" that even the most dedicated watchers of world cinema miss because a German art-house adaptation of a Japanese science-fiction novel would appeal to fairly specialized tastes under the best of circumstances, and this one is kind of weird even for that background. I was into it, but I'm usually down for at least half of that equation, and know plenty that aren't. It's worth a look for those feeling adventurous, at least.

Game companies with names like "Neuroo-X" are always trouble, and this case is no exception. Sure, when Marcus (Christoph Bach) and his friends started the company, they were a bunch of hippies with big ideas, but now it's big business and Marcus, their chief engineer, has disappeared on the eve of a major new product launch. The company may proceed anyway, despite the whole "virtual reality that immerses the player so thoroughly that getting out is difficult and/or fatal" problem. They believe the last bit of Marcus's code may be in the hands of his wife Ryuko (Nina Fog), although she's more concerned with their son and actually finding her husband than launching a new gaming system.

There's not a lot more going on than that story-wise, but what there is tends toward the strange and convoluted with plenty of stops along the way to make the viewer question what is real and what is virtual, despite what seemed like simple color-coding. That sort of convolution is not an uncommon feature in Japanese sci-fi - even "light novels" will often include some sort of chart that a reader can use to find where he or she stands at a given moment - and filmmakers Julian M. Grünthal & Samuel Schwarz aren't particularly interested in compromising their art for clarity: If the viewer stops paying close attention for a minute or two, she or he can get lost rather quickly.

Not that it would necessarily matter; though I can't speak for the novel, the film uses its speculative elements less to create a tight story than to give itself room to play with the ideas and jump into whatever presents itself. One may not be absolutely certain what level of virtuality they are on in any given scene, but the "local" events are generally interesting in and of themselves, and there's almost always a neat idea or two in play - from narration by a digital copy of a character's mind to the trapped and angry players forming an in-game army - to capture one's interest. That wandering focus can sometimes seem to underage the cast; Christoph Bach never gets to make any version of Marcus much more than a cipher and a lot of other characters are defined in fairly simple terms, although the actors give sharp performances. Nina Fog does well with the trickiest part, at least; though Ryuko spends much of the film confused for one reason or another - she speaks little German when she meets Marcus and in the present day there's the plot - she seldom feels passive or like a blank slate, but a smart individual some degree or off her depth.

Grünthal & Schwarz set her adrift in a world that is as familiar to fans of indie science fiction as it is objectively peculiar, one which swings between griminess and minimalism in part because the filmmakers don't have the money for something more obviously futuristic and in part because they don't want the world they're portraying to seem too far off. It works here better than it does in many cases, playing into the idea that retreat into the virtual world is already underway, to the extent that people don't care so much about the condition of the real world. That extends to the cinematography, where the color sections in the game seem a bit grainier than the black-and-white that represents the real world.

Or which may not, as the filmmakers do a nice job of adding some ambiguity later on. Enough so that more than a few viewers will get to the end and find themselves scratching their heads, wondering just what they've seen. That's not a bad reaction to have, though, especially for something that may be a couple steps outside one's comfort zone, and "Polder" is just good enough to maybe expand that comfort zone a bit.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30212&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/19/16 11:49:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

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