The Spine of Night

The Spine of Night (2021)

Naked but for a helmet made of bone and matching bone necklace that houses a glowing blue flower, a woman treks through wind and snow up a mountain, at whose peak, inside the cave-like mouth of a giant skull, she finds a warrior in metal armour guarding a similar, wilting flower growing from the earth. The woman is Tzod (Lucy Lawless), the man is the Guardian (Richard E. Grant), and The Spine of Night, written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King, comprises the stories that these two exchange – stories about the past that encompass not only their own limited (if unnaturally extended) life experiences, but events on a much grander, even cosmic, scale.

What binds their stories are those mystic blue flowers, called the ‘bloom’. Having discovered its spores, Tzod was at one time shaman and queen of a matriarchal ‘stone’-age swamp tribe, and used the flowers in communal campfire rituals to share psychedelic enlightenment with her fellow folk – until a more ‘advanced’ collection of ‘civilised’ colonists destroys their idyll, taking Tzod captive, massacring everybody else, and burning the swamp to the ground. At their newly founded (and aptly named) city of Pyre, Tzod will meet the scholar Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith), an at first decent man who intervenes to save her life, but then himself takes it once he has seen, and been corrupted by, the power of the bloom. Indeed The Spine of Night is preoccupied with the all-too-human brand of greed that refuses to share resources (be they food, knowledge or power), and that always proves both destructive and self-destructive. Tzod’s narrative – which paradoxically spans centuries, even millennia after her own death – is really the same old story told again and again, resurrected over many ages: an eternal conflict between the haves and the have-nots, between freedom and fascism, where the only prize, beyond a divine immortality that ultimately proves unattainable, is the odd finite moment of courage, love, compassion, possibly even enlightenment. 

Meanwhile the Guardian’s story goes even further back in time to a cosmogony, and a creation myth for our solar system and our species – where the struggle for the bloom’s power long preexists the human race, and defines its ‘progress’. The Guardian is one of a long succession of warriors who have had the nihilistic truth about our existence and place in the universe revealed to them by the bloom, and pledged to protect the rest of humankind from such awful insight. Yet here the preservation of knowledge exclusively for and by a select few is a repeating pattern that never ends well – even as stories and myths come with their own revelations.  

Much as Tzod and the Guardian’s stories look back to the beginnings of humankind and the world, The Spine of Night is itself a retro affair. For it is animated through rotoscoping – a form which, despite occasionally being resurrected by Richard Linklater (Waking Life, 2001; A Scanner Darkly1A Scanner Darkly also had blue flowers at its centre., 2006; Apollo 10½, 2022), is decidedly passé; and it looks back to the animated dark adult fantasy worlds of René Laloux (Fantastic Planet, 1973, Les Maitres du Temps, 1982 and Gandahar, 1987), of Ralph Bakshi (Wizards, 1977, The Lord of the Rings, 1978 and Fire and Ice, 1983), and of Gerald Potterton (Heavy Metal, 1981), as well, of course, as to the cover art of many a prog rock or heavy metal album. Along the way, it also alludes visually and conceptually to other myths of human struggle and development: the evolutionary phases of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the environmental degradation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), the king plummeting in flames from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), the valiant defiers of a king-as-god in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), the celestial theomachy of Tarsem’s Immortals (2011), the crashing of a warship by winged soldiers from Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980), and the never-ending, Manichaean conflicts of the similarly animated Aeon Flux.

Ambitious in its scope, mind-expanding in its concepts (not to mention in its bold visuals), and extremely violent and gory, The Spine of Night captures, via its mythomaniac (re)invention of human history, something essential about who we are, and about the capacity that we have for both self-serving cruelty and self-sacrificing bravery. Here the best and worst in us are allowed to bloom and disseminate, in a cycle whose infinite recurrence offsets our bounded individual mortality, even as technological advances made along the way never seem to be matched by much in the way of moral improvement. Every story that Tzod and the Guardian tell is essentially the same, pitting brutal, unforgiving nihilism against the vain hope for a different, better future. Yet it is the telling itself that brings comfort, even as it conjures a void.

strap: Philip Gelatt & Morgan Galen King’s dystopian fantasy is a (ret)rotoscoped ode to cosmic nihilism and humanity’s dark side

© Anton Bitel