Slow Cinema of the Apocalypse: Close-Up on Aleksei German, Jr.'s "Under Electric Clouds"

"Under Electric Clouds" wonders what humanity means, and what it looks like, when progress has stranded us in a desert of our own ambition.
Scout Tafoya

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Aleksei German, Jr.'s Under Electric Clouds (2015), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from November 10 - December 10, 2017 as a Special Discovery.

Under Electric Clouds

All throughout Blade Runner 2049 I kept wondering why more of the film wasn't impressing me, despite so much of it being quite clearly so impressive. The lack came into sharper focus in hindsight. Where are the rest of the people? Where's an actual sense of life in 2049 L.A.? What happens here? What does it mean to live in this smog-ridden hellhole? The more the questions came to me, the more they started to feel like answers handed down by a complimentary and superior work of art. Under Electric Clouds is the film Blade Runner 2049 was attempting to be, give or take a couple of fist fights and explosions. This was the glacially paced dystopian rumination I'd wanted all along, it just took a film with its ambition without its humanity for me to realize it. Blade Runner is very clearly a study of who is and isn't human. Aleksei German, Jr.'s Under Electric Clouds wonders what humanity means, and what it looks like, when progress has stranded us in a desert of our own ambition.

The opening narration, paraphrased: One era replaced another, sending off sparks…snowy winters, brief thaws, heatwaves, melting snow. We entered each new era confused. It's 2017. 100 years after the Russian Revolution. We first follow a man traveling through a snowy expanse with little but the coat on his back and a vintage stereo. He happens across a man midway through the murder of a woman. He backs away, evidently taking stock of what kind of person he is now that he has this life or death choice to make. Is he the sort of person who could kill a stranger for the sake of another person's help and risk dying in the process? The decision happens while the man is just to the left of the camera's gaze, which bounces around the environment in a way that ought to be familiar to fans of Miklós Jancsó. The man, the first character to which we are introduced, in the already dense opening 15 minutes of this movie, wins his fight with the murderer and then crouches by the bleeding woman and holds her hand, laying with her as the life leaves her body. We may be in the future, or some degrees-dimmer parallel universe, but life is still a mammoth, mysterious and precious force. German knows that the second he cuts away from the poor dying woman that her life is over. But it means something. She has no name, no words, only her face, her whimpering and her blood-soaked sweater.

The next vignette finds a woman planning for an uncertain financial future. Her nose bleeds a few hours after the symbolic death of her pet horse. "The blood is ridiculous," she says, "it must be from grief." She’s breathlessly charging even further into the future, dislocating her emotional life from her social and financial ones. The screen is a near constant blur of incongruous gatherings of people, machinery and animals. You're meant to feel as lost as our momentary heroes (the film is split into chapters and there's a new set of characters in each one, though some reappear), drifting between empty streets, lonely homes and crowded fields. Art and advertising mingle freely, both abstract and emotional, full of dead direction that now escapes the sad humans lingering in their shadows. Much is discussed, little understood or kept. "The past is gone. We can build a new world," offers a beautiful stranger to a sad architect.

German, Jr. would have just finished overseeing the completion of his father's masterpiece Hard to be a God when he went into production on Under Electric Clouds. It's like an earth-bound answer to Hard To Be A God's hideous medieval future. German went into the dark ages to show our future, knowing only too well to what depths we'd happily sink if allowed. German, Jr. wanted to know what the intermediate future would look like. The one we're gently, if unstoppably, approaching. He stages a fully costumed Arthurian LARPing duel as a reminder of his father’s final film. The scene is the embodiment of cock-eyed hope, hope that we'll remember the past even when entrenched in a future/present completely unmoored from a recognizable landscape. German, Jr. peers at his lost gaggle of protagonists through a thick grey green haze, both a demonstration of the deathless industrialism that has supplanted the ideals of the revolution and a way to distance the real 2017 from the one on-screen. He keeps the annoying traps of modernity to remind us that nothing really changes, even if it surfaces do. The rich and the poor still exist in opposition to one another, and neither seem able to make sense of their emotions. Apartment roofs still leak and even pet robots can break if untended. Every ailing, distant father could be the absent German, Sr. Or they could just be the architects of a future they won't live long enough to shepherd after they've ensured its direction. Phantom buildings made from expertly hidden CGI hover over the cold lands as reminders of those fathers, the titans who own the land because they planted structures there like flags.

Violence means more in this film's world of overwhelming defeat, where every building is a few hours away from ruin, every millionaire a hair’s breadth from the gutter. We could just wait for death, so every body blow and knife wound feels that much more superfluous and cruel. Existence is scrambled here, which makes the sacrificing of lives all the more strangely sadistic. No one can communicate clearly. Seemingly huge life decisions are made by bone-tired refugees from stories we're only just joining. The diffuse, rambling narrative means to give you a handful of impressionistic landscapes, then drift away, lingering as if half-dream, half-surreal short story collection, like Joyce's The Dead set after an apocalypse no one seems to remember. Ultimately what difference does it make? It's coming. It will be shockingly violent. It may already be here. 

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