At its best, cinema is honest artifice. At its best, cinema is fiercely provocative & political. It’s a shared dream; it’s poetry. Neptune Frost is cinema at its best. The genderfucked Afrofuturist sci-fi musical is the kind of start-to-end stunner that feels so peerless in its fury & creativity that there isn’t a clear, pre-established critical language to fully discuss what it’s doing. In genre terms, it triangulates unlikely holy ground between the communal-solidarity sci-fi of Bacurau, the dreamworld lyricism of Black Orpheus, and the “Hack the planet” online resistance culture of Hackers. Otherwise, it’s untethered to tradition, using the digital tools of internet-era filmmaking to build an entirely new cinematic sensibility from scratch. While so many genre filmmakers are stuck mining the past for retro nostalgia triggers, Saul Williams & Anizia Uzeyman are honest about the look & means of the moving image of the present, and as a result Neptune Frost feels like the future of sci-fi in the medium.
Neptune Frost‘s resistance to clear comparison or definition is integral to its design. It boldly opposes every institutional structure it can hurl a brick at, from major oppressive forces like Capitalism, Christianity, and rigid Gender boundaries to more pedestrian concerns like Plot. There are two lovers at the center of its loose, musical fantasy: a coltan miner mourning the loss of his brother and a non-binary traveler mourning their loss of place & community. They find each other in the Rwandan savanna, and their love for each other combines with their hatred of modern civilization to create a new way of engaging with spiritual life & the physical world. Other refugees & dissidents appear drawn to their subsequent political commune like a spiritual magnet, finding a way to collectively “hack” into the world’s computer systems from their remote locale through the power of their own hearts & minds. Enough characters have names like Innocence, Philosophy, and Tekno that Neptune Frost feels like it should have a clear metaphorical guide to its scene-to-scene events, but I would be lying if I could say that I can make full sense of it (or that I’m even confident about my vague overview of its big-picture premise). Since it’s all conveyed through music & poetry, though, it doesn’t have to make logical sense; it just has to be emotionally potent, and I felt every minute of it deep in my chest.
I do believe there is a clear guiding force to its political messaging, at least. As much as it sets out to methodically undermine every single institutional structure in its path, it’s all filtered through a very specific disgust with the mining of coltan in countries like Rwanda, where horrifically exploitative working conditions are treated as a necessary evil to powering the world’s smartphones. It’s openly confrontational about this trade-off, starting with a needless death in a coltan mine and referencing “Black-bodies currency” in its free-flowing song lyrics. The beauty in its political subversion is in the way its savanna hacker commune turns the tools of their oppressors against them, using the community of online connection to overpower the systems that profited from its creation. It’s a purely electronic mode of spirituality & political fury that feels more real & vital to modern life than the organized religions & pre-existing political movements it’s supplanting. I don’t know that it offers a clear, real-life solution to the exploitation of coltan miners, but it does have a clear ethos in how online political organization is necessary to create meaningful change in the physical world, despite the exploitation that makes that connection possible.
The closest I’ve seen previous experiments in form approximate Neptune Frost‘s specific mode of political-resistance sci-fi euphoria was in the feature-length music videos Dirty Computer & When I Get Home. I love both of those films for their boldness in pushing the medium to its outer limits, but I don’t think even they quite match Williams & Uzeyman’s far-out achievements here. More importantly, they’re both relatively recent works, which means Neptune Frost is at the forefront of something new, something not yet fully defined. It’s a thrill to behold, even with the uneasy balance between its political hopefulness and the real-world misery that drives its resistance to current status quo.