Native (2016)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/14/16 06:55:28

"One goes native when cut off from what's familiar."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: For much of "Native", I wondered if the filmmakers might be doing the filmic equivalent of a theatrical production where costumes, set decoration, and the like are deliberately understated or anachronistic, to better focus the audience on the more universal aspects of the story. It may be the case, and if nothing else, it means that a particularly peculiar sci-fi tale can be told while spending the budget on a nice cast rather than a lot of ornamentation.

Much of the action takes place on a spaceship crewed by Cane (Rupert Graves) and Eva (Ellie Kendrick), who, like many of their people, share especially strong telepathic bonds with their spouses, enabling faster-than-light communication with mission control back home. When Cane's partner Awan (Leanne Best) dies, that means that he is far more alone than most can fathom, and Eva's partner Seth (Joe Macaulay) relays occasionally conflicting advice to try and get closer to her shipmate while also keeping a close eye on him: It seems likely that the empathetic Cane will start to identify with the inhabitants of the planet at the other end of their journey, which could be dangerous for a mission to establish a new homeworld.

Though not covered with makeup or displaying obvious ticks, it's pretty clear that Cane, Eva, et al, are not exactly human beings as we know them, and finding a way to present that without seeming coy or making the audience dig through details about how their civilization is different can be a pretty tricky thing. Director Daniel Fitzsimmons and co-writer Neil Atkinson find the right balance with their script, though, peppering the film with references to different values, family structures, and societal pressures without it being overwhelming. Still, while Cane and Eva are not like us, they're not beyond understanding.

And, given that material, the filmmakers are fortunate to have Rupert Graves and Ellie Kendrick on board. The two may not be household names despite having been in some popular things, but they are character actors a cut above the folks who usually appear in this sort of low-budget science-fiction film, and it's a pleasure to watch them work. Graves gets what is often the big, theatrical part as Cane is constantly teetering on the edge of a breakdown and acts to engage the audience's empathy even before certain things about the setting are revealed, and he embraces how the film often feels like a stage production. Kendrick's Eva isn't as easy to like - if Cane is stumbling toward individual humanity, she is maintaining her connection with the hive back home - but that often makes her interesting. Kendrick shows how a person can be part of that sort of larger network without coming off as a sort of drone, as is often the case.

It's easy to refer to this sort of society and the characters that spring from it in terms usually used for insects, and the filmmakers lean into that, calling it "The Hive" and building the ship (and the brief glimpses of "home") almost entirely out of hexagonal shapes, evoking a beehive or wasps' nest. The actual construction looks a bit ramshackle at times - it may be a matter of wanting to show an organically-inspired ship that has decayed some during its long trip combined with too-dark projection, but it often looked like a movie straining against its budget - but it works so well conceptually that this hardly matters. It also makes for a fantastic contrast with when the ship gets a glimpse of its destination and the filmmakers find the blockiest possible location they can.

It comes together into a science fiction film that is definitely one for the art-houses and festivals - though no bit of it is particularly far out of the mainstream, it's minimalist and favors rough edges to slickness, marking it as perhaps a bit of an acquired taste. It's not a hard one to acquire, at least, and that the filmmakers know their priorities makes finding their work especially rewarding.

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