Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's vision of the future is inventive and exhilarating, though it doesn't always find the right rhythms
The continent of Africa has the world’s greatest abundance of natural mineral resources, key to the production of smartphones, computers, solar panels and electric vehicles. But its actual populace sees none of the profits from that mineral extraction. Instead, Africans are subject to most of this tech’s physical demands and risks.
That is the angry realisation underpinning Neptune Frost, an Afrofuturist dystopian sci-fi musical, directed by husband-and-wife duo Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman (the former may be most familiar to UK viewers in his guise as a musician, conjuring a unique, experimental stream of hip hop for two decades). But the film takes a huge leap of imagination into the unknown, flitting between real and imagined, the future and the past, male and female, and everything in between. It’s a challenging work, without much of a plot to cling onto, and is all the better for it.
What little narrative there is concerns a coltan miner Matalusa (Kaya Free), whose brother is struck down and killed at work. Matalusa runs away from the oppressive working conditions and comes across a camp held together by Neptune (Cheryl Isheja/Elvis Ngabo), a non-binary, seemingly superpowered being. At Neptune’s camp, a growing amount of runaways and refugees arrive, eventually culminating in a psychedelic break for liberty.
The production and costume design – neon lights, repurposed hardware, metallic protrusions arising out of people – is frequently inventive, an organic development of the film’s ruminations on technology merging with the power of community. The music, composed by Williams, is unsurprisingly fantastic too – a melding of traditional East African drumming (the film is set in Burundi), futuristic electronics, and sharp, hypnotic, lyricism. With it, colours pulsate and thrum, extending light into the darkness.
And yet, in spite of all this, the film can’t quite grab its images with both hands. The music – great as it is – often pauses just as it gets going. Some of the most rhythmic sections of music lack an equivalent rhythm onscreen. The camerawork can feel little static, the editing a tad sluggish. A sequence during the opening, where ritual drumming is combined with the physical action of mining, shows promise, but Neptune Frost rarely builds on this in later scenes. A musical doesn’t need to aim for snappy razzmatazz – and this certainly isn’t that – but this film’s ambitious goals are occasionally let down by some of the directorial decisions.
Nevertheless, the film retains a unique energy, host to a minor galaxy of ideas that prod and provoke at our relationships with technology, gender, and profiteering. The question of whether technology can liberate or shackle us becomes moot when such hardware originates from some of the most deprived, exploitative conditions on the planet. But Neptune Frost's collective anarchistic vision of the future remains energising – there is more than enough promise here to hope that Williams and Uzeyman keep on making films.
Neptune Frost is released in UK cinemas on 4 November.Where to watch