Love (2011)

Review first published in S&S Sept 2012


Synopsis: Earth’s orbit, 2039. Captain Lee Miller, sole occupant of the International Space Station, loses contact with Houston Mission Control, save for an apologetic recorded message asking him to “sit tight for a while.” In complete isolation and gradual mental decline, Miller alleviates boredom and loneliness by talking both to himself and to the imagined presences of female astronauts who had been on the station before him (and whose polaroids he has found). While repairing the life support systems, Miller discovers the old, leatherbound journal of one Captain Lee Briggs who in 1864 had been sent by his beleaguered Yankee General on a solo mission to observe “an object of the grandest design that has been discovered East of the Colorado Basin.” To Miller’s great frustration, the object itself is not described.

Exactly six years after his abandonment, Miller contemplates a suicidal leap from the ISS to Earth, but changes his mind. An indeterminate time later, Miller, now heavily bearded and tattooed, receives a data package of a television interview that he gave shortly before lift-off, and computer notification of a docking spacecraft. Entering the spacecraft, he travels via hallways, stairs and elevators to a room full of digital memory banks. A computer monitor shows Miller’s pre-flight interview, and an old book, compiled by the National Organisation of Archival History (N.O.A.H.), offers a history of a scientific project that began with Briggs’ discovery of a spacecraft. Miller enters his own index code from the book into the computer, and a voice reveals that he is the last remaining human, and that he has boarded an Ark-like “collection of memories.” Miller merges with the system all around him in a cosmic union of connections.

Review: If David Bowie’s 1969 single Space Oddity, rush-released to coincide with the Apollo 11 launch, was an overt musical riff on Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking SF 2001: A Space Odyssey (whose protagonist, David Bowman, even bore a similar name to the otherworldly singer), then William Eubank’s Love brings even closer this merger between cinematic cosmosophy and concept album. For while the film shares with Kubrick’s 1968 headtrip – as well as with Solaris (1972), Contact (1997) and Moon (2009) – a concern with the relationship between the human mind and everything beyond it (other minds, technology, aliens, God, the universe), it was also independently financed by American alternative rock collective Angels & Airwaves as a companion piece to their studio album Love (released in two parts between 2010 and 2011). Originally conceived as an extended avant-garde music video, the project expanded into a feature-length labour of love for its writer/director/cinematographer/production designer William Eubank, who wrung every last cent from a modest budget by hand-building the International Space Station set in his parents’ driveway, and himself (with help from his brothers) digging the underground tunnels for the American Civil War sequences.

Sole occupant on a space station in low orbit, Captain Lee Miller (Gunner Wright) finds himself, much like Bowie’s Major Tom, “sitting in a tin can far above the world” and cut off from all human contact, in the aftermath of an unspecified global catastrophe. Over many years he endures this ordeal of extreme isolation by imagining others on board with him, and assimilating an 1864 journal mysteriously secreted behind a circuit panel. Its author, Captain Lee Briggs (Bradley Horne), was likewise the sole survivor of various battles in the American Civil War, before witnessing something life-changing out in the wilderness – and his war-time exploits, as well as being vividly presented on screen, are inked by the mentally deteriorating Miller all over the Station’s interior surfaces and eventually into his own flesh. These parallel and merging stories of human madness and hope for something better over the horizon are occasionally interrupted by faux-archival interviews (accompanied by index numbers) with talking heads who discuss the memories, narratives and connections that make bearable the chaos of life and inevitability of death.

All these themes come together in a paradigm-shifting freakout of an ending aboard a different, possibly alien spacecraft that has docked with the Space Station. It may be a sophisticated archival Ark of the history of human experience, or a ‘projection’ of Miller’s fragmenting mind, or just a metaphor for the individual’s interface with otherness – and what exactly happens to Miller there, and how it relates to the ‘love’ of the film’s title, remains open to debate. This intriguing film, however, offers up enough intellectual mystery to inspire the sort of awe that Eubank’s stunning visuals will also inevitably elicit. Like Billy Nayer Show frontman Cory McAbee’s amazing if underseen The American Astronaut (2001), Love shows that sometimes it takes a musician’s sensibility to orchestrate a cosmic ballet.

Anton Bitel