On wormholes and looking glasses, misleading poster designs, and the gulf between mysteries of plot and mysteries of existence
Anti Matter Uncork'd Entertainment
Director: Keir Burrows
Screenplay: Keir Burrows
Starring: Yaiza Figueroa, Tom Barber-Duffy, Philippa Carson, Noah Maxwell Clarke, James Farrar, Yolanda Vazquez and Casey Lawler
Not rated / 1 hour, 49 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
There are some stories that have become so ingrained in cinema, they're practically part of its genetic information. So when the official website of Anti Matter describes it as a new "take on the Alice in Wonderland tale," you can reasonably assume the description is meaningless, and that you've learned virtually nothing about the movie. (Knowing virtually nothing about a movie is the optimal pre-viewing circumstance, but that's another matter.) Whether such an artistic statement came from the filmmakers or the marketing department is an open question, but suffice it to say Anti Matter is decidedly not a new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. Any more than the countless movies with loose similarities to Jesus or The Odyssey or Frankenstein are actually new interpretations of those stories.
And if writer/director Keir Burrows thinks that's what he's crafted here, then he's mistaking homage and symbolism for adaptation. I mean, Anti Matter does have a caterpillar in it, so I'll give him that. And the film does play with the memory and identity issues of a female protagonist. Fine. But movies have been going through this particular looking glass for over a century by now, sometimes by name but more often just by inspiration.
Then again, my guess is this is mostly - if not entirely - on the marketing team, not the filmmaker. My first and best clue is the official poster (which you can see above) - because it has nothing to do with the movie. I mean, nothing. The poster centers on a ... tree person? And that tree person is on fire. For some reason. The tree person is at the bottom of a stairwell, looking out into - even conjuring - a warped, Inception-like cityscape, full of buildings that are ... also on fire? OK, swirling in the middle there are some sciencey formulas and symbols - the first and only relevant piece of this poster puzzle. And then the coup de grace, the tagline "Science and Hell Have Come Together." I've seen the movie and I honestly have no idea what "hell" has to do with anything. I suppose that's probably where they got the idea for the irrelevant fire motif, so that's one mystery solved. But - and I cannot emphasize this enough - this movie does not feature hellish imagery, nor does it revolve around ideas about hell, nor does it take place among big-city skyscrapers (crumbling or otherwise), nor does anything else about this poster have any relevance to the motion picture Anti Matter. I'm almost impressed by how much this poster baffles me. If it had any sense of art or style, it might have been our answer to those great, inexplicable Polish movie posters - like this one for Terms of Endearment - but alas, it just seems like someone picked it at random from a collection of vaguely sci-fi-ish poster concepts, and slapped this movie's name on it. (Even worse is this one, which wants us to believe that this is some sort of Ex Machina-esque movie about a lady android.)
But I digress. Point being, I guess, that Anti Matter's actual badness is a badness of its own, not a badness of sloppy or unfocused adaptation. Where its ideas come from specifically - and what the movie officially does or does not consider itself to be - is neither here nor there. Whether Burrows is riffing on Carroll or not, his experiments with memory and identity and paradox have to take on a life of their own. Which they do, up to a very limited point. He certainly knows what story he wants to tell, but his reach exceeds his grasp.
Never in the history of movies has the scientific breakthrough of teleportation been a good omen for its discoverers, and that holds true here. A trio of young Oxford scientists are the latest to do the discovering, beginning with modest experiments - moving a small item from one side of the room to another - before eventually graduating to experimenting on themselves. Ana (Yaiza Figueroa, who is somehow not Noomi Rapace's sister) is the head of the operation - it was her breakthrough, and this whole undertaking is her baby more than that of either of her cohorts - and it is she who gets to go through the wormhole, right in the middle of their university basement laboratory, as the group's first human test subject. All goes well, presumably; she transports a few yards across the room. A success.
But by the next day, her partners - vanilla love interest Nate (Tom Barber-Duffy) and Liv (Philippa Carson), the blunt, abrasive, "edgy" one - are behaving with a certain weary impatience. They've begun treating Ana with kid gloves, almost as if they don't want to upset her. Ana is baffled by this - why should she be upset? the experiment worked! - and even more baffled that Nate and Liv suddenly seem to be taking the lead in the lab, keeping Ana from doing too much heavy lifting. They keep on making excuses for their lack of new progress - "You need some rest, let's give it a bit of time," that sort of thing - and deflect all of Ana's increasingly unnerved inquisitions. What, exactly, happened during the teleportation? Why will no one give me a straight answer?
But her questions only obscure the larger issue - the bubbling-to-the-surface realization that her foggy post-teleportation memory is not a temporary state. In fact, she seems not to be able to remember much at all anymore, as if she's been afflicted with Sammy Jankis syndrome all of a sudden. She finds herself confronted by images, people, events, conversations she intuitively knows she should recognize, or understand, but doesn't. Can't. This mental cloudiness is compounded by the increasing eeriness of her day-to-day existence. The masked thief that shows up in her apartment - an assault, a chase. The ubiquitous presence of an anti-animal-testing group on campus, and her strange interactions with its protesters. The sharp, charismatic cop (Noah Maxwell Clarke) who keeps eyeing her. The increasingly bizarre phone conversations between Ana and her mother, each sensing a growing distance from the other.
All of this is filtered through Ana's psyche ... except, actually, it's not. There's a conspicuous lack of subjectivity on the film's part. It never suggests there's anything particularly scary taking place; it wants us (and her) to experience mild confusion rather than psychological agitation. This is, or should be, a terrifying existential nightmare for Ana, in which she seems to be losing her mind, if not her entire identity. But the film behaves like this is all just a coy mystery. Indeed, it's much more concerned with structuring itself around hints, red herrings and reveals than in actually diving into the character's state of mind. To Burrows, Ana's experiences are puzzle pieces rather than, y'know, experiences. Occasional tilts of the frame and woozy camerawork are the most psychology he can muster. Nor does Figueroa have the range to make up the difference. Her Ana is a character caught in a conspiracy, rather than one undergoing a personal crisis.
More than any classic story in particular, Anti Matter shares the most resemblance with recent sci-fi indies like Bradley King's Time Lapse, Jennifer Phang's Advantageous, Dennis Illiadis' +1, the Spierig Brothers' Predestination, Darren Paul Fisher's Frequencies and, most closely, Jacob Gentry's Synchronicity, with its similar use of noir lighting and narrative withholding. It's also much worse than all of those movies, its high ambition undone by its inability to put the story where it belongs: inside its protagonist's head.