(director/writer: Edson Oda; cinematographer: Wyatt Garfield; editors: Michael Taylor, Jeff Betancourt; music: Antonio Pinto; cast: Winston Duke (Will), Zazie Beetz (Emma), Benedict Wong (Kyo), Tony Hale (Alexander), Bill Skarsgard (Kane), David Rysdahl (Mike), Arianna Ortiz (Maria), Geraldine Hughes (Colleen); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jason Michael Berman, Mette-Marie Kongsved, Laura Tunstall, Matthew Linder, Datari Turner; Mandalay Pictures; 2020)
“Outstanding original soul-searching art film about a chance to re-examine the meaning-of- life.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Edson Oda, in his feature debut, is the auteur of this outstanding original soul-searching art film about a chance to re-examine the meaning-of- life. The filmmaker is a U.S.-based Brazilian-born USC graduate and director of short musical videos. The title is a reference to the film’s abstract plot point that it takes nine days to interview other “souls” to be given the gift of life. It’s a metaphysical idea the filmmaker may have borrowed from the Bible or other films, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’ “After Life” (1998) or Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987) or Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2003).
To create the proper setting for the film’s own parallel version of the world, a place where its high concept metaphor for obtaining life takes place, it’s filmed at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. A barren place viewed as not found on earth, but exists only as Oda’s created world. It has a salt lake, where only a few modest homes exist in the desert wasteland for those who have never lived or died as they wait to be judged by an interview process if they will get a human soul.
Will (Winston Duke, played M’Baku in Black Panther), is a powerfully built black man who once lived and is a jaded and a cold bureaucrat trying his best to only send living souls into the real world that will make the place better. He is one of the few imperfect interviewers living a solitary life in the wasteland. The older Asian Kyo (Benedict Wong) is his imperfect, biased and witty assistant, who never lived but thinks he has all the answers. It’s the cynical Will’s responsibility to interview the eligible souls and to try to get them a life if they meet his criteria and then monitor their life on old TVs from his home.
Some of the vying candidates Will interviews are the romantic-minded Maria (Arianna Ortiz), the easy going pragmatist Kane (BillSkarsgård), the comical pleasure seeker Alexander (Tony Hale, providing the comic relief for a droll film that sorely needs it) and the one with a persecution complex named Mike (David Rysdahl). To determine if his subject is fit for life on earth, Will gives them what seems like an “Existence Aptitude Test,” that’s totally subjective. They must respond to a bunch of hypothetical situations and will be chosen if the interviewer approves of the answers whether or not they might be right or wrong.
The most positive subject interviewed is the optimistic, liberated and morally correct Emma (Zazie Beets), whose responses and retorts give Will a chance to reflect on his own short-comings. The sweet Emma cares about others more than thinking about herself (a rarity for any soul prospect).
Whatever is pictured as the real world exists as only something existential.
Oda worked on his innovative project through a sponsorship from the Sundance Labs. The composer Antonio Pinto beautifully created a soundtrack that vividly brings on the reality of an alternate reality. The cinematographer Wyatt Garfield has created some stunning out of this world visuals. All the actors are seriously into their roles and thereby give sincere performances.
It’s a delightful visionary film, filled with many profound concepts that delve into the human soul. Most of them work fine and only a few don’t seem to pan out (such as the tiresome epistemological lectures). It’s an ambitious and heady fantasy film, one that rarely comes along with such intensity and purpose. It stresses the importance of leading a good life over everything else, which gives it a strong spiritual spin.
REVIEWED ON 2/4/2020 GRADE: A-