There's a lot about the human brain and its processes that are relatively unknown outside of theories, namely about the fragility of memories and the state of consciousness within those trapped in a dormant state. Cinema's use of this vagueness evolves with time as more concrete information emerges, but oftentimes the gap between fact and fiction is foregone for the thrill of storytelling, where the conflict it breeds becomes vastly more important than the science and ethics behind it. Vanishing Waves, a Lithuanian production from writer/director Kristina Buozyte, approaches those themes head-on by asking the question: "What might occur if a male research scientist networked with the mind of a female coma patient, enabling them to physically interact in the fabric of normal memories and mildly abstract thoughts?" What results is a resonant, provocative, versatile expression of morality and sensation, a lyrical sci-fi exploration of the desperation of loneliness and the need for sensual connection.
Granted, Vanishing Waves doesn't break any new ground with the physical and psychological structure it explores, integrating doses of Altered States with the science-lite thrills of The Cell and Inception (and a wee bit of Fringe). After computer simulations suggest that neurotransmission with a comatose body should be possible with cutting-edge tools, Lukas (Marius Jampolskis), an obsessive young scientist with a rocky marriage, straps into the networking gear, gets into an isolation tank, and syncs with the mind of a then-unknown patient. With a bit of trial and error due to sensory overload and attunement, eventually he lands within a semi-corporeal dreamscape where he interacts with a woman ... or, more accurately, with her thoughts and memories. When Lukas experiences this for the first time, his hesitation to report the full truth of what he's seen -- and felt -- complicates his future sessions, the peculiar and sexually-charged bond he builds with "Aurora" (Jurga Jutaite) meddling with both his personal life and the veracity of the research data.
Director Buozyte's disciplined, deliberately-paced script with co-writer Bruno Samper tiptoes the line between real concepts and technobabble for its harder sci-fi backbone, as it becomes clear that they takes Vanishing Waves' science and philosophy seriously. The explanations of how this advanced tech works -- and how it affects both the user and the subject -- maintain a balance between unavoidable outlandishness and relative practicality, occurring during conversations that rarely feel like easy opportunities to merely unload info. Buozyte seems to understand how vague and theoretical the concept can appear (and has), so she's taken proactive measures to make its quirks and logical challenges as relatable as possible, down to the ethical concerns of Lukas' evolving conundrum. Once Lukas drops into the partly-conceptual realm of the female subject's mind, the stage is set for an involving clash of pathos and morality that has justified the means that brought him there, which will become important as the film progresses.
Vanishing Waves opens the door for a personal human exploration due its levelheaded managing of the tech, driven by the gripping -- albeit self-controlled -- visual temperament of Aurora's mental space. Focused on the frailty of the boundaries that separate reality, memory, emotion, and mental fabrication, Buozyte not only shows an interest in those lines, but also how they're crossed and react to the psychological integrity of both the research subject and the researcher. This happens almost entirely within the arresting imagery captured by cinematographer Feliksas Abrukauskas that twists the conventions of a dream-like space: ethereal waves and clouds, a boxy half-erected domicile, and the expanses of an isolated beach, forming an environment that's as eerie as it is familiarly idyllic. This isn't a project that purely wants to occupy the audience's mind with whimsical visuals, though, as doing so would distract from the human perspective it conveys about it being a space easily mistaken for reality or fantasy.
It'd be natural to assume that the relationship between Lukas and Aurora would revolve around conversation -- calls of anxiety from a mind trapped in a comatose body wouldn't feel out-of-place -- but for the most part Vanishing Waves chooses to avoid straightforward communication in lieu of obscure, sensory-driven contact, a raw melding of synapses and dreamscapes. Part of that boils down to the roots of Buozyte's artistic desires: there's a degree of overt eroticism in their time together that's both intentionally provocative and undeniably poetic, where their passion delves into something closer to a Freudian psychosexual interaction. Calling their relationship a "romance" would probably be inaccurate, as would judging the chemistry between actors Jurga Jutaite and Marius Jampolskis based on that convention; their intimacy is raw, playful, confusing, and at times eerily vacant. Perhaps that's part of the intent and perhaps it isn't, but either way it's easy to comprehend why Lukas would become enamored.
Driven by soul-stirring music and progressively involved visual motifs, such as an almost Cronenberg-like melding of writhing bodies and distressing glimpses at memories, very little of Vanishing Waves stays clear-cut as it approaches its bittersweet conclusion. Director Buozyte allows these vivid sensations to remain Lukas' and Aurora's guiding force through sly abstractions, extended shots in the vein of Andrei Tarkovsky or Stanley Kubrick, and even subtle meta-hints towards what the director aims to accomplish (there's a moment where Lukas plays a gorgeous video-game, ICO, involving a protagonist leading a ghostly girl out of their prison world). Whether some images linger longer than necessary for the point to get across doesn't really matter: none of them are devoid of relevance, no matter how lengthy, conceptual, or sensual. They create a captivating, often lurid mosaic that escalates in tension, conveying enough emotional clarity to justify their duration as a stunning examination of the human brain's mystique.
Vanishing Waves arrives from Artsploitation Films in a clear, open-book two-disc case that shows off the reversible artwork for the presentation: the designs are almost identical, but one side covers up the risque portions visible on the other. Crisp, wintry artwork covers one disc and contorted bodies adorns the other, while a sturdy Booklet contains photos and an in-depth interview conducted by Artsploitation Films with writers Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper.
Video and Audio:
Damn. The cinematography in Vanishing Waves is really something to behold: cool and clinical tones dominate both the experiment's workspace and the conjoined dreamscape, with a few instances of deep, rich palette choices in skin tones and insistently warm lighting to break it up. To say that the 2.35:1-framed, widescreen-enhanced transfer from Artsploitation Films does it justice would be an understatement, as it almost makes one forget about it not being in high-definition. The contrast in this film can be pretty complex, such as the deep-blue colors of the food on the dining table and the complicated darkness during lower-light sequences, but this transfer handles them all like a champ. Contours and details are razor-sharp. Skin tones are nimble and natural. Metallic surfaces and shining can be extremely convincing. And the fluidity of motion, whether it's slow zooms or fluid tracking are beyond satisfying for the standard-definition medium.
Atmospheric sound becomes rather important to how the film resonates, and this 5-channel Dolby Digital track hits all the right notes. The most consistent aural elements are the subtle, persistent hums laced together with the post-rock score from Peter Von Poehl, which magnificently unsettle the soundstage (and, by extension, the audience) with subtle bass activity and sprawl across the channels. The track's clarity factors into how effective small, slight effects can be, such as the dumping of a beverage over a person's head and the ripples of water, which Artsploitation Films gets right exceptionally often -- and, on occasion, those subtle environmental tones travel to the rear channels for an immersive punch. The mix of Lithuanian and English languages stays clear, decently-balanced, and somewhat aware of the bass channels, and the track knows how to navigate still, near-soundless moments without any distortion. It's a great treatment. Exceptional English subtitles accompany the track.
Artsploitation Films have presented plenty of really cool supplements in this package, all except for the Trailers appearing on Disc Two, but only a few of them are focused on the creation of Vanishing Waves itself. The Making of Vanishing Waves (18:27, 16x9) blends interviews with some exquisite behind-the-scenes photography, where Kristina Buozyte and her crew discuss rehearsals, adapting to budgetary concerns, and making the material on paper come to life. The glimpses at Buozyte directing on-set end up being more interesting than the stock interviews, though. Also, a dedicated Cineuropa Interview with Kristina Buozyte (7:27, 4x3), which was recorded during the Segovia European Film Festival in November of 2012, has also been included to provide more of the director's perspective. Don't forget that the Booklet included also has a lengthy, terrific discussion with Buozyte and co-writer Bruno Samper, and be sure to knock the pointer down all the way to the bottom of the features screen for a brief, photo-driven easter egg.
Two of the coolest features, however, don't offer much in the way of substantive analysis of the film itself. The biggest supplement available is Kristina Buozyte's first feature-length film, The Collectress (1:27:50, 16x9), a surprisingly adept and dramatically weighty film about a speech therapist who loses her ability to comprehend emotions after a traumatic event. The film also stars actor Marius Jampolskis, so that adds to the relevance. Furthermore, Artsploitation Films have also included, much to my surprise, all eighteen track of the full Motion Picture Soundtrack, playable through the DVD menu. While an exploration of the visual effects or a commentary with the writers would've been nice, the supplements included here are certainly worth the time and more extensive than one might expect from a budgeted film from Lithuania.
Without knowing what to expect of Kristina Buozyte's style of direction and the clear lite-erotica conveyed through the film's promo materials, the science-fiction premise behind Vanishing Waves -- a researcher enters the mind of a comatose woman and, through sensory and sensual experiences, builds an ethically-questionable relationship -- was enough to enthusiastically jump in regardless of how it might indulge certain impulses. What I discovered here, though, is a surprisingly lucid and self-controlled mix of provocative imagery and science-minded moral contemplation, where every instance it pushes a boundary also carries a thematic purpose and some form of emotional gravity tied to the narrative. Performed with restrained power by its actors and captured with a entrancingly surreal tone in mind, director Buozyte has gotten her hands dirty with a familiar idea and brought it to a practical, challenging level of artistic expression.
Artsploitation Films' presentation of the film looks and sounds exceptional, too, and they've included a number of slick extras in their package. Highly Recommended to sci-fi and indie fans, with the knowledge that you'll be dealing with some light erotic material, gradual pacing and deliberately abstract cinema.