“You never doubt that these characters belong in their worlds and have lived there a long time.”
Spanish director Chino Moya’s sci-fi fantasy debut Undergods will hit you over the head with its bleak, hopelessly blue undertones of an apocalyptic future, but an underbelly of pitch-black humour make it a compelling Adult fairy tale and poignant reflection of our own equally unsettling future.
The film is stylishly directed by Moya, his genre-mashing script shifting smoothly between four stories; family, paranoia and disruption a running theme in all of them. The first story, which bookends the film, focuses on two workers, K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig), as they scavenge a ruined landscape — the mysterious otherworld of Moya’s film — for dead bodies to turn into valuable meat. K’s retelling of a dream drags us into the second story where miserable husband Ron (Michael Gould) and wife Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) accept a stranger (Ned Denahy) into their home with dire consequences, which is witnessed by a father (Khalid Abdalla) and daughter (Maddison Whelan) who go home to begin the next story in the guise of a bedtime story — this one centring on a wealthy merchant who has his world upturned by a foreigner (the only name given) with an incredible proposal. The last story cycles back to the first and shows another working-class family that has its bonds tested by the sudden appearance of yet another stranger, who has hopped in from the otherworld which belongs to the first story.
On paper it sounds confusing, but Moya has an excellent handle on the various pieces of his strange film. And while it doesn’t build to a big picture, the individual parts move in and out of each other in a satisfying way. The seamless collision of dark fantasy, such as corpse patrols for food, and the mind-numbing reality, like eating hot-pot meals and attending awkward work parties, all contribute to an overriding sensation that the ghoulishly surreal elements of Undergods feel much closer to home than we want to admit.
The film is powered by an evocative synth score from Wojciech Golczewski, which at first seems completely at odds with the dour visuals, like electropop artist, Kavinsky, scoring John Hillcoat’s The Road. It does come together the more time you spend in the devastated rubble of the otherworld, and when juxtaposed with the sterile present of the one we all know and love and resent, the off-kilter tone to Undergods starts to match perfectly in step with the scary monotony of real life.
The cast is stacked with recognisable European talent too, adding to a distinct identity and universal appeal, and also buckling down on the idea of shared experiences and ongoing social issues. The captivating Géza Röhrig has already been mentioned, but he’s supported by a suite of other stars. Kate Dickie is an easy and reliable highlight as the creepy Rachel, wife to timid worker Dominic (Adrian Rawlins). There’s strong competition in the form of Ned Denahy, who has a knack for playing the archetypal menacing stranger, exactly like the one who invades the home of Ron (Gould) and Ruth (Carmichael) in the film’s fairly unsettling second story. However, and this is par the course for a film broken into distinct parts, others are given too little screen time to make a mark, chief among them the disappointingly underused, very talented Tanya Reynolds as the daughter of the merchant Hans (Eric Godon). Similarly, Jan Bijvoet plays the memorable foreigner who ruins his life, but he’s sadly only given a few minutes as well.
All of the cast meld seamlessly into the background of Marketa Korinková’s superb production design. Everything feels tangible, from the human transport trucks of K and Z’s ruined utopia and its devasted architecture to the lavish interior of Hans’ mansion, but also the lifeless office spaces of the present world – and that might be the most horrifying thing about Moya’s vision. You never doubt that these characters belong in their worlds and have lived there a long time. The film will benefit from the simple comfort of home screens, but Undergods is a visual feast, and its brutalist landscapes would have burned bright on the big screen.
The most visually compelling sequences all occur within the otherworld; it’s a place that promises heaps of undiscovered stories – all of them bad, but the most arresting sequence in the film comes from a Frank Sinatra ‘My Way’ karaoke battle between corporate boss Tim (Burn Gorham laying it on exactly as Burn Gorham would) and Dominic as the overworked factory employee desperate to dine with the rich. It’s a moment of unhinged expression in what has been a dreamily muted affair. In a film littered with horror fantasy and futuristic hell, the profoundly mundane nature of this musical outburst is made a little extraordinary, due in no small part to Rawlins’ brilliant performance. The sleazily corporate Tim may have all the eyes on him, he’s the man in the spotlight, the one with the power, it’s his birthday, but his moment to shine is ruined by Dominic’s drunken out-of-tune bellow. The sheer desperate howl of anguish rings as true, funny, and emotional as anything this year, and it’s ultimately the best example of the disconnection — between two lifestyles, two worlds — that grounds the entire film and Moya’s bitter warning of a derelict dystopia.
Undergods succeeds the most in its depiction of a catastrophe ripping away the heart of civilisation, and Moya couldn’t have predicted his strange luck in releasing the film during a global disaster of own, where distrusting strangers has become easier to do than it perhaps already was. This ambitious, kaleidoscope of ideas would have been a tough sell to studios, and statistically, anthology films don’t do well, but watching it this year casts the film in an urgent, weird and comforting light. There’s no getting around its cold heart and savage shell, but Undergods firmly wants you to feel every inch of its bizarre horror landscape of a future that might not only be around the corner but is already here.
Director: Chino Moya
Producers: Pablo Burguera, Mary Burke, Ana González de Castejón, Juan Lamo de Espinosa
Cast: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, Ned Dennehy, Kate Dickie, Adrian Rawlins
Release Date: 2021
Available on: Digital download 17 May 2021
Featured image courtesy of Lightbulb Film Distribution