There’s a new subgenre coming to a boil within the realm of science fiction. It doesn’t have a name. I’m not even sure that it’s actually recognized other than by folks like me who put an unhealthy amount of effort into recognizing such things. But it’s there. This subgenre is a bit more minimalist, a bit more human in its approach to the future. Rather than dream up scenarios or worlds on a large scale –something like Interstellar or Avatar– the creators of the stories I’m talking about choose to focus in on a small group of people. These stories don’t necessarily connect to Orwellian thought, a certain political theory, or any established thought at all. In fact, politics are left on the backburner. These are stories that use a near-future premise to study human relationships, what it means to be human, yada yada yada. One of the first major movies to lean in this direction was Blade Runner, though that’s still rather large-scale and concerned with creating a world.
I’m talking about movies like Spike Jonze’s Her, where a genuine but hopeless romantic falls in love with a computers operating system, to an extent mocking the state of modern human relationships. Films like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which an extraterrestrial vixen of some sort takes the form of an attractive woman and seduces men, all the while showing the best and worst of humans from an outside perspective. Even Alex Garland’s Ex Machina fits the bill. Through its three richly imagined leads, it subtly addresses the fallacy that is the male sexual fantasy while disguising itself as a man-loves-robot thriller. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem are two others I’d highly recommend, if the first three I named appeal to you. These are films and filmmakers every bit as influenced by the likes of Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier as veteran sci-fi maestros James Cameron and Ridley Scott. Not that there’s anything wrong with the big-budget, “save the world” type movies the industry has hung its hat on for so long. But for folks who watch a lot of movies, there comes a point when the messy effects and melodramatic stakes begin to feel very run-of-the-mill.
Thankfully, we have The Lobster, the latest feature (and English language debut) from Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos rose to international attention in 2009 with the release of Dogtooth, an Oscar nominee widely regarded as one of the best Greek films ever made. The Lobster is a more ambitious, abstract, and beautiful movie in every way (which says quite a lot if you’ve seen Dogtooth). The film won the esteemed Jury Prize at Cannes last year. Alchemy Films bought the U.S. rights and set it for a March 11th, 2016 premiere; but the company’s struggles forced them to sell the rights to A24 Films (who cancelled that date, perhaps with awards season in sight?). The films troubled U.S. release history is no fault of its own (it’s online already, if you can’t wait). There is an established market for critically-acclaimed films of this nature. Not to mention, The Lobster is fucking incredible.
Its dystopian premise would be ridiculous if not for Lanthimos’ deft sense of mood. In the film, set in a near-future unnamed European city, single adults are all gathered and sent to the same hotel. There, if they cannot find and procure suitable spouse within 45 days, they are transformed into an animal and sent off into the woods. Hence the title, as the main character, David (Colin Farrell) prefers to be turned into a tasty crustacean if he cannot elope. There are many rules and stipulations the hotel puts in place to prevent escape and ensure couplings aren’t faked, but the basic details provide enough so that you can imagine what the film explores.
David comes to the hotel following a divorce. Immediately, all individuality is ripped from him. He’s not necessarily apathetic, just beaten to the point where he knows what’s coming to him. His wife left him for another man. His brother failed to find a match and was turned into a dog. The only other people at the hotel he’s able to strike a rapport with are two other men, both defined by, and literally named after, their disabilities. Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Limping Man (Ben Whishaw). Limping Man eventually matches with Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), constantly smashing his face to the point of bleeding so to relate to her. Again, there’s no individuality in this setting. David, at registration, says he’s straight but has had one sexual experience with another man. He’s forced to choose one or the other. His shoe size is 44 & ½, but he has to choose 44 or 45.
The Lobster is surprisingly funny for a film so melancholic. It features that subtle sort of humor where you realize the preposterousness of certain moments through the eyes of the protagonist. David works so well as a lead not only because his reserved nature allows those he interacts with to come to life; but also because his apparent relatability allows him to function as a mirror for the audience. Like most people, David is naturally shy when it comes to sex and relationships. He’s put into some strange situations that work as comedy because of that.
Of course, David wouldn’t work if the man playing him didn’t capture his coyness note for note. This is probably the best turn of Colin Farrell’s career. As we saw when he worked with Spielberg in Minority Report or Malick in The New World, Farrell is a tremendous actor when paired with a great director and allowed to work rather than simply fill an archetype. He completely embodies David. Just the way he walks gives off a sense of nervousness.
John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw are very good in small parts, making it easy to believe David is drawn to them as friends. It’s always nice to see this version of John C. Reilly as opposed to the purely comedic one many know him as. He’s perfectly awkward here, a tragedy in and of itself deserving of a full story. The two female leads, neither of whom emerge until halfway through the film, couldn’t be more different. They also don’t get names (only David does). Rachel Weisz, always solid, plays somewhat of a victim here, a victim of logic rather than prescribing to one end of the spectrum like everyone else in the film. Lea Seydoux is a standout as a woman so frustrated with the hotel and its ideas that she, arguably, becomes worse than anyone in it.
As I said earlier, it’s Lanthimos’ sense of mood that allows a film so bleak yet so silly to work on both levels. On top of writing a script all over the place in tone but so focused in theme, he’s in full control of all elements in play. The crew is all Greek, and they clearly helm from a filmmaking culture a bit more reticent than that of America’s. The photography (credited to Thimios Bakatakis) cares more about still framing than flashy movements or angles. Many of the most memorable moments feature the actors moving while the camera does not, despite holding steady for an extended shot. This must have been carefully rehearsed and at times annoying to produce, but the result is transfixing. It positions its humans as animals hopelessly wandering about a place with no escape; not an accidental effect, obviously.
The location of any particular scene, specifically its confines, are emphasized by the editing. Generally, when we see a new room or landscape it’s first shown as a whole from multiple angles before the characters even do anything. The Lobster isn’t going to wow you with quick cuts or nuanced camera movement. That’s fine. Those techniques wouldn’t work for this type of movie.
I can’t say much more about the plot without spoiling it entirely, but let’s just say that once the story leaves the confines of the hotel the film explores the same themes from “the other side”, which is equally as detached from commonality. There aren’t heroes or villains in The Lobster. There are characters, both male and female, who can’t help but fall on the outside of a society that expects certain things.
The films last shot will leave you sitting in silence, questioning what happened and what the movie is really trying to say, but not in a way that feels like a cop-out. Ultimately, The Lobster says so much without really saying anything at all. There’s no resolution, no message. It’s a scathing satire of human beings but never a pretentious one, thanks to its wit and stripped-down acting. Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as one of the true auteurs of world cinema. Where his weird mind but perfect eye decides to take viewers next, I’ll be the first in line.