Truly "Lovecraftian" cinema - movies which express the tone and atmosphere of H.P. Lovecraft's cosmic horror work - can be difficult to find at their most effective and evocative. Unkown unknowns (things we don't know that we don't know) don't always fit well into a narrative story structure and telling a non-linear/abstract story isn't so simple.
However, filmmakers go forth and try anyway, producing projects like From Beyond or even Stalker. Movies that, beneath the surface level ambiguity and deconstructed through-line plot, tell something we feel as being honest and sense as terrifying by virtue of being entrapped in a scenario of unfamiliar territory. Peeking behind the curtain, witnessing what lurks in the shadows, and so forth. They Remain is host to these themes and visions, done up spectacularly in near micro-budget fashion. Where physics and logic go out the window, so does social etiquette and humanity - constructs that are shed to discover what exists away from what we understand. From what we know. Or, from what we think we know.
Following two scientists - a military type male and a "by the book" female - sent on a laboratory mission to study biological anomalies as a result of a mass death/cult tragedy, They Remain starts and ends with very little exposition, or explanation of what's happening. It's up to the audience to infer from dialogue and behavior what exactly this duo is up to, who sent them, why, etc. This may seem daunting and exhausting from the get-go, but once you reach the finale, satisfaction should set in. The film is 100% gung-ho with its mystery, never once revealing the poker hand it holds. With much confidence and bravado in direction, Philip Gelatt breaks ground on hallucinatory colors and imagery quickly and without regret. We start struggling to grasp what's on screen and end by coming to our own conclusion(s). There's just enough in They Remain to conjure up an idea but not enough to really "know".
William Jackson Harper is outstanding as the one character we try latching onto. He begins as a "prepared for anything" soldier and, as things occur at different paces for any mind to handle, he unravels and transforms. In any other film, his predicament would gather talk within the story about his sanity and state of being, but They Remain chooses instead to pummel him and, subsequently, us, with sensory overloads and nightmarish depictions of memory and/or the future. His perspective slowly turns unreliable, but we never switch things up. It's always on him to navigate the tale, no matter the obstacles harming him.
Do events change people? Places? If so, how? And by who or what? They Remain is not a movie of answers, but revelations do come. Not easily, but they do come. The screengrab on this very review features one of the best shots of the film, where the camera focuses on ants crawling on a plant, then re-focuses on the man, whose face is framed deep in the bushes, stalking and thinking. The implications of this moment are staggering, suggesting but never flat-out stating what the mission really is, and who or what is really being examined.
Lars Von Trier. Werner Herzog. Philip Gelatt. All three directors depict nature as a force all by itself, potentially or absolutely evil. Out of all the planets we've observed, the one we know the least about is Earth - at least, that's what I've read. We don't know of alien life, we know little about ourselves and less of our "purpose" and if there is one. Few films reflect these notions as the terror and anxiety they are. They Remain is oblong and perhaps "above" traditional storytelling, but what it hammers home is the overwhelming chaos of our Universe. An opening quote from Lovecraft himself doesn't hurt, but maybe that was a step too far.
RATING: 4 / 5
They Remain screens in New Orleans at Zeitgeist now until April 19th.