To say there’s an overabundance of dystopian scenarios throughout pop culture would be one of the biggest of understatements. Yet it can seem odd, especially since there are plenty of situations and ordeals around the world, currently happening, that are just as vivid and worthy of attention — no escape or creation needed. One of them is the ongoing war in Ukraine, where since 2014 a multipronged campaign of aggression and undermining from neighboring Russia has grinded down the nation’s soul in an attempt to practically vanquish them. This is the psychological space within which Ukrainian filmmaker Valentyn Vasyanovych works within for his immensely compelling feature Atlantis, which imagines the end of the hostilities in 2025, all while the war seemingly continues within the mind of an ex-solider, as he attempts to find his place in a gutted world. It’s a road away from the devastation that’s bolstered by bleakly poetic images that are presented like a single eye fixed, unblinking, almost hypnotized, gazing ahead perhaps ready to be coaxed into looking for something fresh once again.
Steelworkers in a decimated Eastern Ukraine, Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are military veterans who’s adjustments to the aftermath of the war aren’t going very well, as they ruminate on the war they thought would bring change but instead left them embittered and cynical about whatever future is to come. Ivan soon takes a hauntingly drastic way out, while Sergiy’s situation is partly decided by the plant’s closing, a message delivered at a 1984-esque workers meeting in which the factory’s British owner speaks of “new opportunities” and “a competitive Ukraine” and serves complimentary drinks to the just-laid-off.
Sergiy quickly takes a job driving a tanker truck of fresh water to once-occupied, now-inhospitable zones marked by shallow graves, pollution, abandoned factories and land mines. On one of his treks through these foggy, desolate fields, he meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer with a group dedicated to finding, exhuming and identifying the long-dead victims of the carnage, no matter which side they were once on. She tells Sergiy of the strange irony that comes with having a degree in archaeology and doing her work: “It’s like digging up your own history.” When Sergiy eventually offers to help her in these grim tasks, it’s the start of an acceptance that there may be a path forward for him, even in this wretched landscape, even having seen what he’s seen and done what he’s done. As you might’ve picked up on, the basic arc of Atlantis is the PTSD-suffering soldier’s cautious return, yet melodrama isn’t anywhere near this film’s vocabulary. Vasyanovych — who’s also his own cinematographer — has a documentarian’s eye for the power of landscape to contrast the actions of humans and a rigorous filmmaker’s trust in the heft of an image over expository dialogue. There probably isn’t any more than twenty-five, sparsely spoken shots in all of Atlantis, but each one is bold and efficient, tactile and unforgettable, tableaus that ooze an oppressive, weather-beaten void but also steer us in small, nurtured ways toward its protagonist’s shifting sense of self.
The importance of the cut in cinematic editing is one oft-described as what sets movies apart from real life. Yet Vasyanovych, with Atlantis, plays nearly every scene within one fixed, unbroken shot, deploying those lengthy takes with a practical masterstroke. Many individual shots are like short films in and of themselves: a background dumping of slag that’s composed as if it’s Sergiy’s post-apocalyptic mindset; his amusingly ingenious repurposing of a lone excavator claw; and, most metaphorically audacious for a movie about life after death in modern Ukraine, a slow push-in from a rainy-dreary outside to a scene of healing intimacy inside the volunteer van’s cramped interior.
It’s that world outside the van which isn’t exactly beautiful in the everyday living sense, yet it trudges ahead in an attempt to rebuild, a place where love can blossom once again. In one sense, Atlantis was born out of hope; it at least imagines a post-war Ukraine at a time when conflicts everywhere threaten to enjoin to endlessness. What exists in this visualized aftermath of landscapes may not look like anything to many, but it’s Vasyanovych who finds something beautiful, strange, comic, touching and eventually optimistic within it. A haunting, quietly enthralling parable, Atlantis — with all its ruthless, stunning formal control — finds a pinch of hope in its bleak, existentialist exterior of economic and ecological degradation.
Atlantis is available in Virtual Cinemas