by Andrew Wyatt on Feb 17, 2021

Writer-director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s third feature film, Atlantis, takes place in the year 2025, in a region of eastern Ukraine that has been devastated by the brutal one-two punch of a protracted war and widespread environmental contamination. It would be imprecise, however, to characterize the feature as a post-apocalyptic science-fiction tale. Even the gritty, near-future dystopias of films like Mad Max (1979), Children of Men (2006), and The Rover (2014) seem downright baroque compared to the bleak yet recognizable world envisioned by Atlantis. Civilization is still limping forward, and everything looks relatively familiar. People still slog to their jobs every day, and the government still provides a veneer of stability – mostly by erecting high concrete walls and blanketing the countryside in armed checkpoints. Food, water, and fuel are still available, although everyone is now living closer to the bone. There are grim postwar obligations that must be addressed, such as safely detonating buried land mines and unearthing the countless dead now rotting in unmarked graves. This is not exactly our world, however – something is missing. Call it hope, or perhaps just the animal resolve to keep marching forward when the last drop of hope has turned to dust. Regardless, the void left behind by this absent factor is starting to develop its own devouring gravity.

This void is on the verge of consuming Serhiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak), both haunted veterans of a recent Ukrainian-Russian war. The men work at a local steel foundry, and by night they crash in a crumbling, seemingly abandoned apartment block. For diversion, they periodically set up a firing range at a nearby quarry, where they keep their reflexes sharp by unloading their sidearms into sheet-metal targets. The fact that these men feel compelled to stay trigger-ready even in peacetime – not to mention the speed at which their training exercise boils over into clumsy antagonism – is an early indication that they haven’t entirely left the battlefield behind. When the dead-eyed Ivan is later scolded by a superior for his slipshod welding technique, it is therefore disquieting but not entirely unexpected when he abruptly jumps from the foundry’s catwalk and into a crucible of molten steel.

At the heart of Vasyanovych’s desolate but magnificently composed feature is the question of perseverance: Why keep trudging miserably through a world that seems drained of promise and meaning? What’s striking about Atlantis is that it poses this query through worldbuilding that feels remarkably banal. The future it posits is not an ashen, utterly hopeless hellscape as in The Road (2009), nor is it a grotesque technocratic dystopia in the mold of Brazil (1985). Ukraine in 2025 looks, well, a lot like Ukraine in 2021. The film’s locations favor the barren, industrial, and wintery – rock and soil, concrete and steel, smoking slag and flaking rust. (If there is a single tree captured on camera, it went unnoticed by this viewer.) However, nothing in the film’s landscape seems exaggerated. Indeed, Atlantis almost feels like a documentary at times, the squat, square cousin to Jennifer Baichwal’s lyrical, post-industrial features (Manufactured Landscapes, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch). Favoring long takes and fixed camera setups, Vasyanovych’s storytelling has a slow, steady character, one that invites the viewer to ruminate on the dire spiritual toll that this world inflicts on its wretched inhabitants.

For a time, Ivan’s suicide seems to set Serhiy on a similarly self-destructive path. After rolling out of bed one morning to face another day at the steel foundry, he pauses while ironing his frost-stiffened trousers to press the appliance’s hot metal surface to his inner thigh – just to feel something. However, the foundry is soon closed indefinitely for renovation and retooling, a measure that the company mouthpiece claims is for everyone’s benefit, even if the insincere solemnity on his towering Big Brother visage says otherwise. Serhiy thereafter picks up a part-time job traversing the country’s rural roads in a tanker truck, transporting clean drinking water to remote military and industrial locales. It’s in this capacity that he runs into field technicians employed by the Black Tulip Mission, a government project aimed at exhuming and identifying the war dead that lie buried in numerous mass graves across the countryside. Serhiy strikes up a wary friendship with Mission worker Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), to whom he volunteers his services as a driver and assistant on those days when he’s not hauling water.

This is about all the plot that Atlantis has to offer. The film is much more concerned with conveying the psychological sense of this dreary, exhausted near-future than in crafting compelling dramatic situations. Katya and Serhiy eventually have a sexual tryst that evolves into something like a romantic relationship, but this is presented as a kind of inevitability. Not in the cosmic sense, but in the sense that two suffering souls in proximity to one another will eventually couple up simply due to their mutual, unashamed longing for a modicum of comfort. To the extent that Serihy can be said to have a character arc, it’s a remarkably minimalistic one: He slowly crawls out of a terrible place and into a slightly less terrible place, recognizing that there might (might) be something to live for after all. He achieves this not through some transformative crisis, but by engaging day after day in a literally hands-on manner with Ukraine’s effort to catalog the interred horrors of the past. It’s the kind of story that might have felt stilted in its metaphorical obviousness, if Vasyanovych hadn’t done such a spectacular job of imbuing his setting with chilly, authentic weight.

Vasyanovych has been working as a prolific multi-hyphenate filmmaker in Ukraine for more than a decade, variously serving as a writer, director, editor, cinematographer, and producer. Although he has a pair of feature-length directing credits to his name (Kredens, Black Level), his most celebrated contribution on the international festival circuit is probably lensing Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s masterful and provocative Ukrainian Sign Language crime thriller The Tribe (2014). The measured, meticulous visual style he brought to that feature is evident in Atlantis, but here it’s swirled together with the sensibility of filmmaker Zhangke Jia, who so often regards the changing landscape of contemporary China with the quiet, befuddled awe of an alien visitor. Perhaps inevitably, the film also recalls how Andrei Tarkovsky bestowed the ruins of industrial Russia, Estonia, and Tajikistan with a paranormal weirdness in his sci-fi masterpiece Stalker (1979). Vasyanovych has a similar affinity for transmuting Ukraine into something that feels at once grubbily mundane and slightly uncanny. This is exemplified by a long, wordless scene in which Serihy turns an abandoned backhoe bucket into an opportunity for an impromptu hot tub soak.

Viewers who aren’t accustomed to so-called slow cinema may find Atlantis’ glacial remove a bit trying, especially given Vasyanovych’s preference for rigid medium and long shots that obscure the subtleties of his actors’ facial expressions. However, Rymaruk and the film’s other performers achieve impressive depth through their body language, and the director’s crisp attentiveness to blocking and composition often tells a story all on its own. (Watch Serihy’s unsettled movement around the periphery of the room as a medical examiner dryly catalogs the clothing clinging to a mummified cadaver.) On those occasions when Vasyanovych’s methods stray into flashier territory – a particular slow zoom on and then through a rain-spattered windshield comes to mind – the impact is that much more potent. That said, it’s worth emphasizing that Atlantis is unabashed art cinema at heart, offering an experience that is contemplative rather than propulsive. For viewers willing to submit themselves to its somber, unhurried style, Vasyanovych’s feature reveals a cruel, formidable vision, one in which a despoiled world teeters on the brink of despair. What most lingers about Atlantis, however, is not the film’s smothering blanket of doom and gloom, but the irrepressible glimmers of humanity that occasionally peek through the murk.

Rating: B+

Atlantis is now available to rent via virtual cinemas from Grasshopper Films. Purchase a ticket between Feb. 12 - 25 and the proceeds will help support the Webster University Film Series.