Before Disney came along, fairytales were dark and gritty. In some versions of Cinderella, for instance, the evil sisters get their toes cut off and their eyes pecked out by doves. In a welcome turn for the genre, Undergods harkens back to this macabre guarantee, following the inevitable demise of flawed people living in an unnervingly bizarre sci-fi setting.
A memorable debut for writer and director Chino Moya, Undergods features many familiar faces including Kate Dickie (The Witch), Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders) and Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education). Interestingly, the project is an anthology film, made up of a collection of separate stories that all take place in the same capitalist nightmare.
The true selling point of this film is its distinctive look: a plausible dystopia which manages to retain a fantastical quality through Moya’s creative use of colours. Blue and orange, for instance, complement each other to bring visual balance to the screen. Refreshingly, the palette is not achieved merely through colour grading: rather, it was incorporated throughout the entire production. Different shades of these colours dominate both the props and the costumes. For instance, lighter shades combine to create a faded mess in the merchant’s house, while cleaner lines mirror the freedom of a seemingly carefree roller-skater.
The characters are not especially three-dimensional, but the acting makes them compelling nonetheless. Dickie in particular shines in her manic depiction of a delusional spouse. Like in fairytales, the characters exist to serve the world-building and the themes of the film, rather than to provide the audience with a relatable experience. This, however, does not mean that the film lacks familiarity. Like a nightmare, it awakens intimate feelings through bizarre scenarios. One particular story takes the concept of letting a romanticized version of your past take over the present very literally. In the story, a wife suddenly rejects her husband after her ex drifts back into her life—even though he’s little more than a catatonic mannequin. This alien-like quality, infused in the appropriately dramatic acting as well as the cinematography, provides enough distance for the picture to feel like a believable dystopia. Meanwhile the acting and the characterisation work well to create vividly odd characters, suited for this dark fairytale.
Undergods is not perfect, with the less-than-stellar script at times hindering the effectiveness of the story. Most notably, the connection between the tales is shaky; this causes pacing issues, especially at the beginning. However, this narrative style has potential. With a sharper script to make those transitions more seamless and intentional, the writing might have felt more decisive. Despite this, the courageous attempt at an anthology-style first feature sets Moya’s directorial voice apart from the rest.
The film succeeds, too, in its overall world-building—in spite of its shortcomings. This is mainly because the tone, crafted through consistent visuals and colourful characters, is reminiscent of a dark fairytale. The strict sense of draconian morality which inexorably condemns corrupt characters to violent ends provides a brutal, black and white moral framework that instantly makes for an engaging watch. While Moya’s obvious commentary on capitalism might be condemned as too on the nose, it fits in with the film’s fairytale-like style: it was clearly an intentional choice, with sophistication being reserved for the world-building rather than the message.
Undergods will by no means appeal to everyone, as it is at times slow and predictable. The world it creates, however, will fascinate and terrify many.
While unlikely to win any awards, Undergods has the potential to become a beloved cult classic. Its unusual narrative style and distinctive setting, while alienating some, will make this an endlessly enjoyable rewatch.
Undergods will be in UK cinemas and available for digital download from 17 May.
Words by Elisabetta Pulcini
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