“See it on the biggest screen, with the best sound and in the darkest room, Zilbalodis’ remarkable animation will make you feel like you’re flying”
Away does what all great art does, in that it becomes yours the moment you experience it. It helps when the thing you’re watching is devoid entirely of dialogue, but Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis’ triumphant film is all the more astonishing because of it. Taking three and half years, Zilbalodis had the inspiring task of creating everything himself, writing, directing, animating, and producing the score on a shoestring budget, absent of the financial depth benefiting the biggest studios, but free of conventional constraints. One can imagine the mental fortitude required to even attempt something like this, let alone see it to the end. But Zilbalodis has, and he’s made something special, potentially industry-changing, opening a pathway to anyone with enough imagination to match the challenge required to get projects like this onto cinema screens and into our homes.
It’s a straightforward story of a boy waking up on a mysterious island in the wake of a plane crash, tasked with finding his way home, escaping dangers both environmental and otherworldly. We find him dangling from his parachute in a stunning opening sequence that draws you into the story by telling you absolutely nothing. He soon finds a motorbike and must pass through a series of stone rings scattered across the terrain like checkpoints in a videogame. As boring as all that sounds, Zilbalodis’ decision to go minimalistic only makes the choices that make it into his film all the more profound.
Pursuing the boy on his quest is a huge shadow creature that kills anything it touches. Aside from doubling as a manifestation of creative self-doubt, or death, or anything you wish, the monster design takes its dark, wispy inspiration from the antagonists of Studio Ghibli and, on a game front, the artistic wonders of Fumito Ueda and Hideo Kojima. The most notable influence in the former can be traced to the mournful Shadow of the Colossus and, in the latter, the apocalyptic industry-defying vision that is Death Stranding. If those two comparisons have piqued your interest, then ‘Away’ is most certainly essential viewing, but even for those with a passing admiration for animation, this is a dreamy, enchanting journey of discovery and escape. A closer comparison, both in terms of scale and form, would be Journey, the award-winning indie game that has you soaring through an expressionless, desolate landscape in search of meaning, compelled only by the notion of moving forward.
Throughout his quest, the boy encounters various wildlife on their little adventures, some are just surviving, like the hawk that swoops down upon a frozen lake. Two particularly charming encounters concern a determined tortoise and a coven of black cats content on worshipping a wellspring. It’s speaking to our natural desire to connect and find meaning in everything we do, but it’s also mirroring the small ripples of random encounters that make life as strange as it is. Regardless of how you respond to any of the stunning sequences in Zilbalodis’ miraculous film, you’ll be astonished how easy it is to become attached to the safety of a pixelated yellow bird. Very likely, you’ll fill in the space with your own fears and dreams, and it’s this simple design which holds Zilbalodis’ extraordinary vision together.
A far cry from the likes of Disney and Studio Ghibli – probably too much for some – the art style takes getting used to. It has the look and texture of a rough-edged prototype demo. While the landscapes are often stunning, particularly the use of lighting and sense of colossal isolation, the boy’s face is nothing more than a pink oval, two blinking eyes and a mouth that opens to drink water. Our only insight into this character is watching his eyes absorb the alien world around him, usually with a gentle touch towards nature here and there, such as a bird being fed and a tortoise being overturned from its back. It’s very simple and yet does far more heavy lifting than you would expect. In any case, with all good art, it’s not long before you stop noticing the shortcomings. Zilbalodis is talented in too many areas for you to worry about the realism of his awkwardly moving tortoise. Away isn’t an animation you admire, it’s one you get lost in.
It’s a testament to his instincts as a director that the film takes your breath away as often as it does. The camera pans out whenever it can, shrinking its lost boy, increasing the scale of the environment to match the magnitude of journeying alone. This brings cinematic flair, especially when the relentless shadow creature appears on the horizon, but crucially – because the story is so barebones – Zilbalodis’ energy with the camerawork ensures the world feels endless, dangerous, and full of secrets. It doesn’t matter that we’ll never find anything, all that matters is that we feel like we could, just beyond the hill. If the sole animation and ambition of Away didn’t already signal an incredible talent in the 27-year-old filmmaker, then the beautiful score will. Like everything else, the music is minimalistic: delicate enough to convey a child-like wonder but with enough dramatic oomph to make the film’s threatening moments descend and its eruptions of wonder to sing and soar. See Away on the biggest screen, with the best sound and in the darkest room, Zilbalodis’ remarkable animation will make you feel like you’re flying.
Director: Gints Zilbalodis
Producers: Gints Zilbalodis
Release Date: 2019
Available on: Digital download 17 August 2021
Feature image courtesy of Munro Films