Other Worlds Austin 2016 Review: DOMAIN, Great Visual Style and an Intriguing Puzzle Narrative
An intriguing Twilight Zone premise gives way to a deadly mystery in Nathaniel Atcheson's fascinating new sci-fi indie, Domain, which just had its world premier at the Austin Other Worlds Film Festival.
In the film, more than half a million survivors of a deadly virus have moved underground into isolated, self-regulating bunkers. We're told through a corporate video (hosted by the inimitable Beth Grant, Donnie Darko), that individuals are isolated in order to ensure the the virus won't be able to spread through the remaining population.
Communication between survivors is only possible through a two-way video interface called "Domain", and only pods of seven people are able to communicate as a group - this being deemed the optimum number of community participants.
As the film begins, we are introduced to our cast of characters, each named after the city they're in. Through a heated conversation in Domain, we watch the group debate whether or not to permanently shut off the feed of one of their group, "Orlando", a bully and dissenting voice in the group. He's someone we might consider a "troll" in our own online analog.
We learn that cutting someone off in Domain leaves them without any human contact and could be a death sentence. Some characters have trouble with this, most don't, and I considered this moment something of a powerful metaphor for our current cultural state, where group-think ideology has a way of banishing anyone who doesn't side with popular sentiment.
While certainly a juicy topic, ripe for examination in a sci-fi setting, it is not Domain's intent to go down that road. Instead the moment is an inciting incident, a way to show a system on the verge of collapse. And, of course, it does collapse. And the way things unravel to reveal the system's true nature is as unsettling and satisfying as you might hope.
Its sci-fi set-up aside, it' is a love story that resides at the centre of Domain between "Phoenix" (played by Britt Lower) and "Denver" (played by Ryan Merriman), two strangers who have found a profound connection through technology. And while it's difficult to discuss the themes of Domain without giving away key twists, suffice it to say the synthetic nature of their intimacy is crucial to part of the film's revelations.
Both of the lead performances are strong and Atcheson allows the narrative enough space that the relationship breathes and grows organically.
It's worth mentioning the film's unique production design, which beautifully blends 70's retro style and futurism. Old-fashioned wood panelling and carpets adorn bunkers tricked out with high-tech digital wall displays. This gives the film a pleasing visual pastiche.
The cinematography is also well done, shifting colours used to heighten mood and intensity. In a world were so many dystopian films are visually bleak, Domain's approach is a welcome alternative.
Domain is a smart and well acted film with an intriguing puzzle narrative and great visual style, so I feel comfortable recommending it to fans of indie genre.