Streaming Review

Atlantis review – haunting Ukrainian dystopia keeps you at a distance

Writer-director Valentyn Vasyanovych helms an atmospheric but overtly formal vision of the future about a soldier dealing with PTSD

Opening with a lengthy thermal imaging aerial shot as three men set about digging a grave for another glowing figure, Atlantis makes an early point of mixing the elemental with the miniscule. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s follow-up to his miserablist breakthrough Black Level finds itself liberated by gestures to dystopian science-fiction, even as its study of PTSD hits very close to home. It won the Horizons strand at Venice 2019, though in spite of the dignity of its messaging it falls mostly into familiar “art film” routine.

In a snowy mountainside, gunfire echoes as two soldiers aggressively practice their aim on cut-out silhouettes. This is Ukraine, 2025, one year after a war with Russia that has left the country baron and under the thumb of corporate contractors. Andriy Rymaruk, a real-life veteran of the Donbas War, gives a well-controlled and internal performance as Sergiy. Working at a nearby factory that looks like a stage, full of criss-crossed bars and Roman candle-like sparks, his situation feels unreal – even as a body falls like a stone into a pit of molten fire below.

Soon, a British steel magnate visits the factory to announce its closure, his face projected huge before the workers in an obvious reference to 1984. This would seem like a ridiculous piece of reference baiting if it didn’t so strongly resemble the images pushed by the British government last year at the heart of the COVID crisis, of Matt Hancock attending the opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Birmingham via video link.

There’s no furlough scheme in 2025, however, and with Sergiy out of his smelting job, we see the squalor of his apartment, where windows are whited out by the cold outside. Soon, he volunteers with a group of grave diggers to help identify those dead from war, where he will both confront his trauma and discover untold truths about this Ukrainian nightmare.

Holding the camera back and allowing scenes to play out in their full duration, Vasyanovych’s technique is meant to eschew accusations of emotional manipulation (without close-ups, who can relate?) while still finding ways to be visually impressive by filling out a fresco of ornately orchestrated movements around and through the frame. A harrowing, extended autopsy scene, in which a coroner examines a corpse so burnt that it’s near fossilised, is framed for the camera like a proscenium arch. But with lab assistants working on one side, a clerk typing on the other, and precise movements breaking up the scene’s monotony, it’s all too formally perfect to fully impact the viewer.

The scope of these scenes may hinder a real connection with the characters, but Vasyanovych is reaching further in a bid to depict environmental deterioration in the face of an ongoing conflict in Ukraine. His haunting dystopia is shot without the aid of special effects, so yes, the landscape really does look like that. As Sergiy becomes one with nature – if it is in fact separable from industry – he fills a JCB digger with water, lights a fire underneath, and hops in for a dip. However purifying or corrupting this scene is supposed to be, it’s hard not to view it as a touristic piece of advertising: take your next city break somewhere unusual, inside a piece of machinery!

As Atlantis reaches its climax, Sergiy begins to connect with his colleagues and the landscape, and even make peace with the desolation of the military-industrial complex. Even without the aid of thermal imaging, Vasyanovych finds a way to capture the heat within his characters.

Atlantis is now streaming on MUBI.

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