Is the apocalypse in all your head? Bryan Kramer's debut feature has exploding heads, which is excellent, but really it's more about one man's journey into paranoia and the lonely night, as he struggles to understand a deadly pandemic.
Forget Scanners and fast pace; think existentialist head trip on the meaning of plague, set to sparse eerie electronic chords, plus historical footage of gas masks and missiles. I would have liked more exploding heads, but perhaps that wasn't the point, or budget.
The camera work in Presence is impressive, lots of hand-held work and close ups, but also some of best night shots of downtown LA I've seen since Constantine (not talking story, but shots). the visual FX were few, but excellent. I've read people compare this movie with Cronenberg's early work, but I think that's just because both are experimental and make powerful use of sound FX. Tim Cummings is impressive as The Man. Luckily, as he's the only speaking part in the movie. The film opens with historical footage of missiles misfiring, and then cut to the Man in only a hospital gown, stumbling through the city, looking for clothes and food. A feeling of unseen death and paranoia permeates everything. There's a lot of blue filter and close up shots of his reactions. Interestingly, the city is still populated, though only by a few. Those alive go about their business normally, pretending the plague is not there. The Man himself just tries to keep moving.
As he journeys by mostly empty bus and subway, he narrates the story of how the plague first began in the countryside and moved into the cities (original take I thought), we see black and white footage of scientists and old computers. Later when the remaining governments band together to bomb and obliterate the infected countries, we see footage of missiles and riots. There are a few flashbacks, but really the back story is shown with the footage, rather than scenes from the Man's life. As the story progresses, red colours start to seep into the blue. From time to time he brushes against a convenience clerk or a fisherman at MacArthur Park (think it was there), whose head explodes, which is not surprising considering the state of that lake. The journey takes him to the coast, to prison, to a forest, and the static sounds in the his head get louder and louder…
Much of the movie relies on the Man's narrative, a mix of memory, paranoia and his vision of a society that's infected and doomed. This sounds great, but I found it got quite slow at times. A five minute reaction shot of the Man's eyes is daring, but a bit too daring for me. I guess I would have liked more revelations e.g. stories of cannibalism, revolution, or family implosion/explosion. Same with some of the story action: why not full on rob the convenience store instead of just browsing around? But like I said perhaps that's not the point here. The paranoia of the character defines him, not the exploding heads. Sometimes I even wondered if there was a plague at all. Perhaps it was all a fantasy in the dude's head? But the persistently exploding heads robbed me of this pretentious theory, thank God. Whatever the case there are some wonderful trippy lines, my favourite was: "My mother used to watch static on the television for hours."
Presence is an original film, and I would recommend it to fans of the cerebral apocalypse. If you like fast pacing, countless twists and turns, lots of action: forget this movie, it's not for you. People who like Goddard's sci-fi Alphaville (the director does) would also enjoy this film. It was shown at Seattle's True Independent Film Festival in 2009, and I'm not sure if elsewhere. I'll be interested to see what these guys do on a bigger budget.
Rating: 7 out of 10
This post originally appeared on Quiet Earth.