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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Atlantis (2021)

On paper, Atlantis has loads of potential. Set in 2025, Ukraine, one year after what is simply referred to as “the war”, we follow Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk), a veteran of this war trying his best to integrate back into normal society as the rest of the country attempts to do the very same. It’s a frightening, not-so-distant future of a hypothetical war that could very easily happen as tensions continue to escalate between Ukraine and Russia. Even though it’s a hypothetical, fictional situation, themes of PTSD and the damaging, unhelpful effects of capitalism remain relevant and are key in understanding the intentions behind director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s vision in Atlantis. However, there are creative choices and a far too slow 104-minute run time that makes it feel like a needlessly long detour that barely scratches the potential the film had in discussing its ideas more fluently and effectively.

Atlantis is an extremely bleak film with next to no dashes of hope scattered about. Even if you barely know anything about the tension between Russia and Ukraine over the shit show that is happening with Crimea, you know that all-out war could very easily happen at any point. So it’s interesting to see the after-effects of this not-yet-happened war through PTSD and the unsurprising damage capitalism has on the community as it exploits a country desperate to regain its footing. Despite "the war" being an important backdrop to the bigger and deeper themes of Atlantis, Vasyanovych is clever in what he shows us of the war, with only one instance being an event that took place during the actual conflict - a masterfully orchestrated and paced scene that is seen from a bird's eye view, shot with infrared perspective as soldiers execute and bury a prisoner. It’s a startling creative choice that refuses to show us the finer details, opting for heat signatures instead. This is where Atlantis proposes an interesting perspective on this hypothetical, fictional war. It wants to skip the obvious messages and observations of war that we have come to expect and goes straight to the aftermath of it, showing us the lingering after-effects of it all instead. This is another brave, thematic choice as we draw our focus on both victim and perpetrator. Sergiy and his friend go through a vigorous target practice routine, they clean their guns together like clockwork. These moments fool us into thinking the war still exists. Internally, it does for these men, but externally, it's long over. War and the trauma of it have settled deep within them now - it's just a part of their life now, and this is where Vasyanovych’s discussion of PTSD has Atlantis showing intriguing glimpses of ingenious potential. They go to their dead-end, difficult jobs as they try to get their lives back on track, trying to return back to normalcy. But they’ll never be the same, and as the film progresses, we see flashes of the lives they once had vs the ones they have now. As Sergiy says towards the end of the film, he just can’t live with normal people again, and unfortunately, this will always be the case with refugees and victims of war as PTSD has taken hold of them, never letting them truly escape from the trauma of war and conflict.

As it stands, Atlantis is filled with interesting snapshot vignettes from the observant eye of a photographer clicking away at these individuals and their new lives. But unfortunately, these moments just don’t seem to warrant a 104-minute run-time as it just doesn't let us get close enough in needing to understand each character. Each one of these scenes, captured with static shots that almost never move, drag on for an eternity. And although a majority of these frames appear to be carefully thought out through the general composition of said shots, you still need to create a lasting connection with the audience with what is happening on screen through subtext and performance. Georgian film Beginning (from earlier this year, here's my review on it), is the perfect example of how to make use of long, mostly wordless scenes that utilize uninterrupted long shots. They let each moment simmer with subtext and character insight that constantly reveals itself to you the longer you sit with it. No moment is ever wasted as each instance that passes has a defined purpose, reflecting the inner musings and conflicts of its characters. As mentioned before, Atlantis works better as a series of vignettes in a shorter run-time, but due to its length, these vital, powerful moments found in each scene are surrounded by inane nothingness that outstays its welcome far too often, effectively wasting chances of painting deeper, more insightful portraits of its characters. The pacing is just all off and it hardly makes any of the time between each moment worth paying attention to. It feels like Vasyanovych completely wastes the time he is given, and unfortunately, misses an opportunity at allowing us to truly, or at least, try to understand PTSD from a unique perspective in an effective time frame. It’s hard to get behind or even care about these characters if the run-time of the film isn't even allowing us to at least try to break down and understand these characters just a tiny bit more. Vasyanovych diverts our attention away from where it should be prioritized, spending far too much time in certain scenes where medical examiners uncover and identify unidentified corpses - painting interesting portraits of nameless soldiers as we get glimpses into who they are. Unfortunately, these aren't the characters we should be focusing on, and like that, the dead appear to be far more interesting and fleshed out than the living characters in front of us in need of dissecting.

As mentioned before, these long static shots are often beautifully composed with striking visuals, but when you don’t really have much to say with such hollow and detached characters, it’s impossible to actually care about these shots from technical, performance and even narrative perspectives, completely downgrading the film’s visual approach even further. The complete lack of close-ups and dynamic camerawork make us care less about these characters and our desire to understand more about the PTSD and general anguish they appear to be going through. We get the odd medium close-up, but they barely stick around, once again, taking away our chance of getting anywhere meaningful with these characters. We only see their external interactions with the environment, but nothing internally, and if you’re going to make a point about your film's primary focus on PTSD, it is important to give us even the slightest of glances of that inner turmoil so we can care just a little bit. Another film that makes excellent use of shot selections from this year, is that of The Killing of Two Lovers (review here). Mostly viewed through long shots, it cleverly bounces to close-ups in absolutely crucial, introspective moments, giving us brief crucial chances to unpacks our characters. When dynamic camera movement does happen, it’s a reflection of the characters and their inner struggles. Vasyanovych barely takes advantage of that here, and unfortunately, it creates a very cold and emotionally alienating experience that may be entirely intentional, but unfortunately for me, just denies me from ever wanting to at least try get close to anyone found within Atlantis.

Atlantis has admirable moments of potential genius at play, with its greatest moments arriving early in the film, but past that, it’s hard to imagine why it’s worth sitting out its 104-minute run-time for. As a thirty-minute short, Atlantis could’ve been the powerful, visceral experience it wanted and needed to be, but unfortunately, filler moments of aimless nothing-ness and misery porn makes Atlantis a frustrating chore. It’s an intentionally grim experience, but Vasyanovych never quite makes full use of it, favouring what appears to be surface-level misery instead of developing effective characters and story that it so desperately needed in order for it to make the lasting impact it could've made.

Where you can watch it: Mubi (SA, UK, Australia)

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