Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, August 28, 2015
When I see the terms “science fiction” and “independent” lumped together as a film’s category, I usually make time to watch it. When I discovered the movie, LOVE (2011), on Netflix, its categories were “drama” and “independent,” but the cover image showed Earth from orbit, and an astronaut sitting on a park bench in full space-gear, so I knew it was sci-fi. I also expected (and this is critical foreknowledge for most independent science fiction films) LOVE to be very weird. Trippy. A mind-[bad word that means lovemaking].
I’ll just point this out now and be done with it: if you see this on Netflix, don’t read the short description of the film. It’s not only wrong, it’ll set your expectations in the wrong direction when you sit down to watch it. It did for me. It’s not about time travel. He doesn’t time travel. I don’t think he does. No, of course he doesn’t. Probably. No, there’s nothing like that in the film. Read on and you’ll see.
Of course, I could be wrong. I might be. Probably not. Definitely… ah hell. Let’s start at the beginning:
Captain Lee Miller is an astronaut, recruited as the first person to return to the International Space Station (ISS) after an extended period where it was abandoned. The space program apparently found some extra money in a sock drawer and thought it was time to go back up. Captain Miller is played with quiet intensity by Gunner Wright (J. EDGAR, 2011, DEAD SPACE video game). To be honest, I thought he was Ryan Reynolds for the first part of the film. He’s not. Ryan Reynolds is, in fact, not in this movie. Nevertheless I was very impressed with Wright’s performance, especially considering that he was the only character in the film (for the most part) and spent eighty percent of the time alone in the bowels of the ISS.
But wait, this is not the beginning. Let me back up to the actual opening scene.
Captain Lee Miller is a soldier in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, pinned down with the rest of General McClain’s regiment as they wait to be flattened by the Union Army. Things look bad, and McClain orders Miller to travel to some other location where a special discovery had recently been made. He asks him to tell the story of it, and of his experiences with McClain’s men. Miller leaves on horseback. Not long after, McClain’s regiment is decimated in one of the bloodiest battles in the war. I think it was. Seemed like the bloodiest battle.
These opening scenes are amazing. Well filmed, dark and moody yet the images are hyper-clear. I know, that’s not an actual filmmaking term. How do I explain this? Sharp focus… no. Never mind. I can’t explain it, except: With so much despair and misery the men in the regiment are enduring, amplified by a narration from Captain Miller, it’s a stunningly beautiful scene to watch. However they filmed this, technically, it’s a visual treat. Granted, there is also much use of the hyper-slow-motion effect I first saw (at least noticed), in MELANCHOLIA (2011).
After leaving his regiment, Miller eventually reaches a small cadre of soldiers who are guarding something out of frame over the ridge. He steps to the edge of the cliff and looks over. But we, the viewers, don’t see what it is. You might be able guess, I think, but not right away. And it doesn’t matter, anyway, because it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Not really. Sort of.
Because then we meet Captain Lee Miller, the astronaut circa 2047 or so, boarding the ISS and doing a series of diagnostics and experiments, floating alone in high Earth orbit. He gets occasional messages from Cambridge, England and Mission Control as he passes over their respective hemispheres, and watches a video from his brother telling him he’s going to be an uncle soon. The days pass.
Until Mission Control tells him something bad was going down on Earth-side, but there is no time to explain. He simply needs to hold on and they’ll be in contact soon.
Miller waits for the follow-up. And waits. And waits.
He’s alone in a metal tube, floating over the Earth with no idea what might be happening back home. This all happens in the early moments of the film, and most of the remaining time is spent with Miller dealing as best he can with the growing isolation, with being cut off from every human being in God’s creation.
I was riveted by this film (always keeping in the back of my mind, however, that the ending would likely be weird and not tell me much about what I just watched—I was right, though it wasn’t quite as cryptic as I feared… oh, yes it was, who am I trying to kid? I get ahead of myself, however).
Written and Directed by William Eubank (THE SIGNAL, 2014), LOVE was entirely funded, interestingly enough, by the band Angels & Airwaves (the members of the band also produced the movie). Did they do it to get their name out there, or promote their songs through film? Maybe. If so, it worked for me. I loved the music. Like many of the films which have left a lasting impression on me (one big example being INK, 2009), music was integral to the mood and overall feel of LOVE. It ran through every scene, with a few breaks of dead silence to make the viewer take a breath. The sound was unique without being overbearing. This worked alongside some interesting editing choices—when panic would set in, we sense the emotion through choppy, staccato cuts in the scene, sudden close-ups transitioning to extended long shots, desperate chords banging on the walls of the soundtrack (yes, my sentences get like this when reviewing artsy films)—to build the internal world of our protagonist.
Another clever bit of directing—or maybe it’s a cinematography decision, I’ll need to ask my daughter the budding filmmaker—was the implication of weightlessness in the station without showing it. I imagine that shooting every scene in simulated zero-gee would be tricky and expensive. Angels & Airwaves probably didn’t have that kind of dough. Instead, director Eubank chose not to do it at all. Captain Miller moves through the ship, reaching and controlling his motions as if in zero-gee, but obviously he’s not. No slow-motion pretend weightlessness, either. If the astronaut drops something, it falls to his feet. Even so, you know he’s floating. Because that’s how he’s behaving. Camera angles also play into this notion, showing him sitting, for example, while filming the scene sideways, or upside down. So Miller is sitting on the wall, or the ceiling. Sounds cheesy, but it works.
So far, this is sounding like a pretty awesome science fiction film. In many ways, when you speak of craft, and acting, it is. However, like I said earlier, this film is a bit of a brain twister. If you get through the Civil War opening without too much confusion (there is a connection later in the film with a book the astronaut discovers which might explain it, or you can try hard to believe that explanation because it’s wrong, because later on things get very, I don’t know… sorry. Need to breathe. Got heightened for a moment. Movies that make brain-cereal in my head tend to do that).
Interspersed throughout the film are sudden, almost jolting cuts to people being interviewed. They’re talking about life, love, dealing with isolation, pushing past the curve balls of life and moving on the best one can. These people are not, in any way, related to our main character, but their words are a secondary narrative for what he’s going through. They’re short, and interesting, so I listened, nodded internally, and wasn’t surprised when these scenes ended and we were back to Captain Lee Miller trapped in the ISS.
Gunner Wright was very believable as a man trapped for a long time with only himself and memories of past lovers for company. The images he conjures of one woman in particular begins to speak to him, and he answers, all the while knowing she isn’t real. But he needs some kind of company, as he staves on insanity. As with many Indy films, I had to use subtitles to catch a lot of the dialogue. Movies that strive for realism seem to think it’s okay for everyone to mumble and whisper their lines. Maybe they couldn’t afford more than one gaffer. Maybe I’m just getting old.
I won’t get into the ending, but I will say there was an ending, sort of, and the filmmakers obviously wanted to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick’s closing scenes in 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY (1968). All through these final, oh, fifteen or twenty minutes I was like—is this David Bowman reincarnated?…. Oh, hey maybe that’s what it all meant. No, wait, no couldn’t be, because of that part. And that.
Hmm. Sorry. Ignore that. No, I didn’t give anything away. Watch the film (and I think you should) and the above-tangent will make sense. Anyway, for those of you sci-fi buffs out there, the fact that I made a comparison to ODDYSEY‘s ending should tell you all you need to know. It gets very weird. Weird, yet things are happening. Some explanations even cover what was over the ridge back in the Civil War days, if you watch closely. And over the past couple of days some ideas as to the meaning of the ending have come to me. But… but, but.
I love films (usually) that do this to me. I’d better stop, otherwise this review will be just as cryptic and You Figure It Out-ish as LOVE. No, the title doesn’t really make sense. If anything, it relates more to the interviews which crop up throughout the film more than what is happening in the big floating space tube. But for a film on a budget, the effects were well done and clever, and did not try to do more than was reasonable. The acting was true to the characters and at times very intense. Not to mention, if you like Ryan Reynolds then you have the Hydrox version here, so it’s almost as good. (Kidding—Gunner, I was quite impressed with your performance and Reynolds wouldn’t have done half the job you did here—make more movies, please.).
Just go in expecting your cerebrum to be milk-shaked and you’ll be fine. Because of the ending, like most independent films, LOVE is pretentious, but LOVE is also kind and does not seem to boast much.
I give it Three Independent Film Awards out of Five – if you go for this kind of thing. If not, watch GRAVITY (2013) instead. Your brain will thank you.