Writer and director Chino Moya’s feature length debut is an anthology unlike anything you’ve seen before. On the surface, Undergods is a bleak collection of stories set in a future where Europe is on the verge of collapse, and an even darker world that exists and that is somehow connected to ours. The way the narrative is constructed to tell each vignette suggests Moya is exploring something on a deeper level. The direction, production design and performances keep things entertaining throughout the whole runtime, regardless of what you think about the unorthodox narrative structure.
The opening thrusts audiences into Moya’s vision of a dismal, desolate world in ruin, where two men (Johann Myers and Geza Rohrig) drive about in their beat up truck collecting human corpses off the barren streets. A mist plagues the unrecognisable city with its buildings in ruins, creating a stark and eye-catching visual style. Science-fiction is of course tricky for low-budget features to convincingly pull off but the visual effects and production design on display are strong and helps create the moody atmosphere. It’s the little details, like the heavily stained and broken teeth of Myers’ character, which stand out. His character begins recounting a dream he had, and from there we transition into the first of three key stories.
Each story shares a familiar theme of intrusion: a couple who recently move into a featureless apartment block welcome in a neighbour who potentially has a sinister motive, a once wealthy businessman abuses people’s trust when they come into his life, and an ex-husband assumed dead returns to his family home to find his wife remarried. Moya cleverly lays out a predictable path in each micro-narrative told, but the only thing you’ll correctly predict is that each ending will lead to a dark fate for the protagonists of that particular tale. With each vignette told the conclusions become wilder and more entertaining, but they directly feed into the next story. When two presumably unimportant characters witness the final events of the first vignette, we follow those character who in turn introduce the next tale. Moya avoids a reoccurring problem with anthology films, where each short story often fluctuates in quality, by making the different stories intrinsically connected.
Even with that in mind, there is one particular story that stands out from the others. Moya saves the best for last, where a disconnected family made up of Rachel (Kate Dickie), her son and her husband Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) have their lives interrupted by the arrival of Rachel’s long-lost ex-husband Sam (Sam Louwyck), who has returned from a hellish reality and is now a quiet shell of a man. The dynamic between each character and how they deal with the situation is electrifying, in particular between Rachel and Sam. In a heart-wrenching scene Rachel confronts Sam on why he left, and where he’s been for all these years, and attempts to remind him of what they had before. It’s a somewhat brief scene but the performances from Dickie and Louwyck are superb, as Rachel wrestles with the many emotions she’s dealing with, and Sam only breaks out of his comatosed state for half a second at the scene’s climax.
The way Moya transitions between the different tales he tells leads to a somewhat meta message for the audience. The film frames each vignette as a story being told by another character, and one particular vignette is even a story within a story, but the conclusions are all bleak and all end up serving no real purpose. It alludes to the idea of our lives being full of pain and even at the end of it the misery is all meaningless. Paired with how each dream, story and roster of characters are somehow directly linked to each other points towards the delightful takeaway that we all endure a miserable life that will sooner or later be snuffed out and mean nothing.
In the hands of another writer and director, Undergods would be far too nihilistic and bleak for anyone to enjoy, but Moya and his crew shows enough artistic flair and heart to keep audiences invested. The narrative twists and turns, on both macro and micro levels, will keep you engaged throughout the whole runtime, if the distinct visuals hasn’t done so already. Undergods is a bold debut from Moya that cements him as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
Undergods will be released in cinemas and on demand on May 17.