Patriotism drives men to war, but when the dust settles, and the bodies pile up, all that’s left is an unrecognizable country. Even if victorious, how can you claim to protect your homeland when there’s nothing left of it? This is the dilemma at the heart of Valentyn Vasyanovych’s stark and desolate Atlantis, a futuristic post-war look at Eastern Ukraine. The region maintains its sovereignty for now, though its veterans face existential uncertainty. Specifically, the drama follows ex-soldier Serhiy (Andriy Rymaruk), now a lower working-class member, after giving his soul to the fight against Russia. Was it all worth it? Serhiy’s journey explores this query; though for the viewer, watching his numbed passivity as he ponders his future isn’t so much a trek as it is a slog.
Missing a spot in last week’s “International Feature Film” shortlist announcement for the 93rd Academy Awards came as no surprise. Atlantis is dreary dystopian cinema that resists character affection. It is much more concerned with its war-torn setting, one of death and decay that holds its protagonist in existential limbo. The lack of character interiority, documentary-style filmmaking, and drawn-out sequences of daily manual labor will not rivet audiences, even if immobility is precisely the message.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Ukraine continues to clean up the waste left behind from war. Two steam factory workers, Serhiy and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak), come into frame after setting up some target practice dummies. Though it has been five years, the retired officers remind themselves of their former glory days by going through old drills. The two suffer from PTSD, although it’s never explicitly stated. However, Ivan’s shocking act during his smelter shift all but confirms the condition. Subsequently, Serhiy and the remaining workers are laid off after their CEO (via teleconference) announces the factory’s closure. The mass firing scene demonstrates how propaganda promotes class struggle inevitability yet ignores corporate entity accountability altogether.
Serhiy then lands a job clearing out landmines and exhuming corpses from the desecrated landscape. Every day is a reminder of the brutality wrought on his homeland, and nothing he nor his fellow countrymen can do will ever restore this part of Ukraine. It’s been devastated beyond repair — no settlements or reconstruction efforts are being planned. In fact, the government plans on abandoning the area once all the dead bodies have been removed.
Serhiy is offered an emergency restoration job in Western Europe that will take him away from this hellhole, but he wrestles with the decision. Does abandoning the country he proudly served make him a traitor or is it time to make a new life independent of the state? The easy answer for us is an impossible one for Serhiy, who fears his military days were meaningless unless it amounted to something greater. Sometimes trying to justify your part in war is a battle in itself.
One bright spot: the morose veteran finds comfort in commiseration. His new colleague Ketrin (Lily Hyde) is a former archaeologist who is now tasked with excavating her country’s history instead of another ancient civilization’s. Being alive to pick up the pieces of your nation’s downfall is a miserable rut to be stuck in. At least the pair have each other in this stark, hopeless reality.
Serhiy and Ketrin’s soft-spoken interactions convey greater emotion than socially permissible. Vasyanovych’s script is practically wordless, as his narrative uses an observational approach to elicit meaning rather than traditional exposition. Tripod shots capture every frame barring one handheld sequence where Serhiy explores the remains of an obliterated house. Atlantis meanders and trudges to show the futility of war: win or lose, nothing will ever be the same, and those who fought valiantly remain in the thrall of misery.
Atlantis is distributed by Grasshopper Film and is currently available in select virtual cinemas