Eden Log first published by EyeforFilm, 11 Nov, 2008
He may have made two (or five, if you count the various director’s cuts) of the best known and most loved films in the genre, but if you were to try to pinpoint Ridley Scott’s original contribution to science fiction, it might be summed up by the word “dust”. Before Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), the future was a bright, clean and sparkly place, no matter how dirty and dystopian its politics – but Scott was the first to show space-age polish at permanent war with encroaching grime, as though no amount of sleek technology could quite cover over humankind’s origins in the mud.
A similar principle is at work in Franck Vestiel’s low-budget debut Eden Log, which begins, like life itself, in a pool of primal ooze. From this there emerges a man (Clovis Cornillac), gasping for breath, covered in filth and no less disoriented than the viewer. As he gropes his way upwards through his dark, dank surroundings towards some kind of illuminating truth about who, and where, he might be, he takes us on an allegorical journey that will accommodate all manner of theological, social and ecological concerns, and will end in a city of pristine beauty whose paradisiac qualities have already been undermined by the filth, abjection and horror exposed beneath. This is a long way from the space opera of Star Wars, but those who like a more transcendental brand of SF (think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris or The Fountain) will find themselves on familiar ground.
Eden Log is structured like a video game. Our amnesiac hero (if, indeed, he is a hero) ascends through different levels of tree roots, mud and machinery, on the way receiving obscure clues and fragments of information, facing various opponents (ferocious subterranean mutant workers, ambiguous technicians, and armed guards from the surface) and having to come to terms with his own unique status in the world of Eden Log.
Mood is key here. The wonderful underground sets drip with atmosphere, and have been shot with filmstock so utterly desaturated that it takes a while to realise there is any colour at all. The protagonist spends the first ten minutes of the film grunting incoherently, and even when he begins to speak, asks questions rather than making statements. Such action as there is tends to be impressionistic instead of graphic, and even the explanations offered by the technicians are fragmented and allusive.
There is a lot going on here. Vestiel’s stylishly bleak parable of paradise lost dramatises humankind’s unbounded capacity to exploit everything, including other humans. Its world is divided into all-too-recognisable hierarchies of haves and have-nots, and while these may be as old (in SF terms) as HG Wells’ novella The Time Machine (1895) and Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking film Metropolis (1927), the arresting image here of the ‘strange fruit’ engendered by slavery is utterly original. Meanwhile Vestiel’s Tree of Life taps into current preoccupations with the environment (with mankind at the root of evil), while also pointing to all manner of religious archetypes.
Perhaps, however, the film also suffers from the combined effect of a slow pace and a highly elliptical narrative, which will put many viewers off watching it a second time, even if seeing it just the once may not be quite enough to appreciate fully the many suggestive nuances that branch out like roots from its core. Stick with it, though, and you are in for a dark treat which, far from patronising us with excessive exposition, leaves plenty of room in which the viewer can either wither or flourish – and those patient enough to last to the end will be rewarded with a truly haunting final image that is well worth the wait. Eden Log is far from perfect, but it has enough ideas to emerge on its own two feet from the cinematic sludge, and marks Vestiel as a real talent to watch.
strap: Franck Vestiel’s enigmatic, elusive sci-fi takes us on a perilous tour of society in microcosm, from bottom to top.
© Anton Bitel