The Villagers

Directed by Joseph Vasey | Review by Prarthana Mitra

The decision to make a science fiction short is almost always an uneasy negotiation with time. But sometimes there comes along a rare film where genre and form, like the veins and arteries, together pump lifeblood into it. And the twain only ever meet when the heart is in the right place.

The Villagers by young Australian director Joseph Vasey was born out of his penchant for science fiction narratives, a collaboration with Warner Bros., and a perfectly realized sense of how to imaginatively use the little time he has within a limited space. Although it takes place in outer space, Vasey insisted on shooting outdoors—in the Australian highlands and forests—relying mostly on upon after effects and sound design to create the other-worldly feeling. The film is hardly nine minutes long but it manages to cover a considerably long period of time, the last couple of minutes comprising a marvelous time lapse which self-reflexively conveys the exhaustion of its lead character, but more on that later.
Vasey’s short stands apart from so many others in the canon in a major way. While most sci-fi’s revel in their ability to make a spectacle out of aliens, space crafts and intergalactic battles, Vasey spends time developing his protagonist who is an astronaut looking visibly out of place in a planet that looks quite like home. Both Vasey and lead actor Shannon Ashlyn have done a fantastic job of humanizing the character when they didn’t need to bother with a character driven narrative at all. After all, it’s a sci-fi— bring out them CGI monsters right?

The Villagers chooses to open with a breathtaking shot of a forested canopy bordered by mountains, before cutting to a shot introducing Morano’s recumbent figure on the forest floor. She wakes up in a state of trance, her disorientation evident from the moment she opens her eyes. Ashlyn effortlessly slides into the role from the moment she occupies the frame. We see Morano look around and get up, brushing the dirt off her white space suit while we are in the dark about where she is or what brought her here. Her movements lack direction if not purpose or memory. Only when she looks up towards the sky through a little clearing and sees two luminous moons, something falls into place and the narrative starts taking shape. Morano, however, seems unfazed by it and we get the feeling she has been lost on this alien planet for a while. Emboldened by her brisk journey around the woods, the camera follows her closely as she looks for water, checks her black box, finds a subhuman footprint— now convinced that something has been following her. In a film which looks so visually attractive, it is surprising that Vasey does not try to orchestrate, stylize and restrict the character’s movements across the forest, which is all very fluid, natural and truly a delight to watch.
The turning point arrives when the device on her wrist goes off and leads her to an ore, following which she is ambushed by a group of mysterious creatures who are clearly the titular ‘villagers’. The mineral as it turns out contains some sort of drug that has trapped her in a cycle of forgetful subservience and the film ends without a hint or hope of deliverance. To see this as the human condition—the cost of progress and drudgery of routine in a capitalist/technocratic society— would be a deconstructionist reading, but I think we can all agree that there is a very fine line between reality and dystopia today.

The hyperreality of the sci-fi narrative blends well with the humane aspect. Nothing about the villagers’ planet looks out of place or superfluous. The heightened pitch of the climax makes up for the slightly hurried pace of the first half. The score is quite dramatic, fitting and atmospheric; it contrasts the cinematography, production design, costumes and use of colors, which is minimal and unostentatious. The novelty of The Villagers is underscored by a simplicity that has been missing from the science fiction genre for a long time and dismissing the craftsmanship at work here is not an option.

Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.