MONTREAL — To make a post-apocalyptic film that deeply resonates, you must truly have a vision that is not only interesting, but is authentic enough to give the audience the nagging feel that the premise could feasibly happen in our society one day. It worked wonders in Alfonso Cuarón‘s now-classic “Children Of Men,” but it faltered in Fernando Meirelles‘ misbegotten “Blindness.”
In writer-director Claire Carré‘s “Embers,” making its Canadian premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, a global neurological disorder has erased most of the population’s memory. Those who remain in this merciless wasteland try to find some kind of connection and meaning in a world that is slowly deviating from it.
At its core, “Embers” is simply told with a mosaic of characters, with all but one having lost their memory. The neurological disorder is not exactly explained, nor do you really get any of the science behind the tragedy. Some of the characters can remember a whole day, while some can only remember minutes.
Carré tries to keep her film grounded in reality, but struggles to find some kind of coherence to her vision. The locations and set design are top-notch and were clearly well-researched. There’s an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana, where characters named Boy (Jason Ritter) and Girl (Iva Gocheva) wake up and struggle to figure out if they are or have been in love. There’s a lot of questioning, which turns out to be an intriguing proposition for the audience, but finally ends up being frustrating because of the repetitive nature of the story.
Another plot thread concerns a professor (Tucker Smallwood) who has found creative ways to survive with what he has, and the friendship he strikes with an orphaned boy (Silvan Friedman). These segments of the film don’t necessarily advance the story in any way, but act as another layer in a story that perhaps has one too many elements.
Then there’s the story of Miranda (Greta Fernández), who lives with her father (Roberto Cots) in a bunker. They’ve found a way to stay resistant to the disease, but Miranda still has the itch to go out, find her missing mom and build some kind of connection with the outside world, even if it means losing her own memory. It’s this struggle between freedom and safety that invariably overtakes the entire film. It’s not necessarily an invalid question to ask, but it could have been done in many more subtle ways than those presented in “Embers.”
The only character arc that actually works is that of an unnamed young man (also the one with the least amount of screen time). This violently aggressive individual (Karl Glusman) brings a whole new meaning to the term “survival of the fittest” by attacking elderly men for their canned food, young children for self-esteem, and girls for sex. It’s a shocking reminder of just which direction this film could have gone if it wanted to step on the dark side of humanity. Instead, Carré stuffs her film with hope, love, family, adolescence, and an overall triumph of the human spirit.
It’s Glusman’s performance that we are most interested in, as he bears the rage and fury of the apocalyptic world on his shoulder. When he finally gets a taste of his own medicine by being brutally attacked by a gang, you’d think he’d finally rest, calm himself down and learn a valuable lesson. But he continues on in his path of terror, wreaking chaos wherever he sees an opportunity.
“Embers” attempts to be a complicated dissection of a possible world not too far ahead of us, but it lacks the imagination to make us soar along with its vision. It’s a depiction of humanity and the world at its supposed lowest state, but you never really feel the misery or despair that is supposed to be present everywhere. With the world falling apart, Carré’s insistence on optimism prevents “Embers” from truly catching fire. [C]