It’s strange to watch Atlantis in 2021. The film is set four years into a dystopian-lite future in Ukraine, and yet it doesn’t feel like a stretch of reality. Bleak and desolate, director Vasyanovych paints a picture of the grim outlook of a post-war Ukraine.
Earthy elements build Atlantis’ wide shots. Flames, rock, water, litter the landscape in a chilly natural lighting. The film begins with comrades and coworkers Sergiy (Rymaruk) and Ivan (Antoniak) at a homemade shooting range. They are both veterans of the war, and they both work at a steel factory. When Ivan’s PTSD becomes too much, he jumps to his death, into a vat of lava-like steel. Before Ivan falls, the factory’s bright, hot fire illuminates the inky black surrounding them. But even with light, it’s hard to see in such a darkness.
Fire is a reoccurring element throughout Atlantis, bringing warmth to rigid landscapes and muddy waters. It opens and closes with thermal imagery, contrasting portraits of a soldier murdering a man with a club and Sergiy holding Katya (Bileka) post-sex. Although most of Vasyanovych’s film feels dreary with its long takes and overcast skies, the fire represents a fraction of hope to hold onto, a beacon of light in the darkness.
Vasyanovych’s name will be familiar to most as the cinematographer for The Tribe, his 2014 cult favorite about life in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf teens. He also shot Atlantis, bringing his signature long, sometimes uncomfortable, takes to his fifth feature film. But unlike The Tribe, Atlantis is not a harsh film, even with its rocky, rugged textures. There’s a tender quality to the film’s stark portrayal of Sergiy’s own PTSD, and how he tackles the many ghosts that haunt him. What is the future of his country, the one he fought for? Did he fight for his fellow steelworkers to be laid off? To deliver distilled water to his neighbors because their local water is poisoned from the war? To identify the littered dead bodies of soldiers?
Atlantis isn’t an easy film to watch, and it’s not meant to be. It’s an anti-war film without solutions, but what it clear is that Vasyanovych believes in humanity rebuilding from tragedy. There are no easy answers to a war that’s currently making his country bleed. Even if Ukraine makes it out, there will still be setbacks, and mountainous terrains to dig through to find an end to the horror. But like his character Sergiy, Vasyanovych is not interested in abandoning a country he’s fought for, even when there’s an easy exit.
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