It didn’t take long to spot one of the big swings of the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival, NEPTUNE FROST. NEPTUNE FROST was described as an “Afro-futurist, sci-fi musical” from Rwanda. If that doesn’t get the adventurist filmgoer’s blood pumping, nothing will.
And, for the most part, NEPTUNE FROST lives up to its promises. Set in the near future, NEPTUNE FROST is clearly a political film. Rwanda is rich in the mineral coltan, used as a key part of much of the world’s electronic devices, but despite the abundance of that much needed mineral, none of the benefits return to the people of Rwanda despite their essential part in mining the material. “Unanimous goldmine” being the shorthand way of describing the disconnect. It’s neo-colonialism. Couple that with the military turning on protesting university students and putting the protestors on the run, and the whole future of the country is in doubt. Into this world, the gender fluid Neptune (Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), a hacker who is reborn via spiritual means into a living power source, disruptor of electronics, and connection with the internet. Combining with the resistance under the leadership of “Martyr Loser King”, Neptune is a rebel being born and something of a new messiah.
Yes, NEPTUNE FROST owes a large debt of inspiration to THE MATRIX. There’s rage against the machine, or “The Authority” in this case. But, in the hands of directors Saul Williams aka Anisia Uzeyman NEPTUNE FROST is a unique vision. Outfitted with jewelry and clothing adorned with wires and components of modern electronics, the costuming lends a unique cyberpunk flavor to the proceedings. With its low-fi aesthetic, more inspired by STALKER than modern Hollywood blockbusters, NEPTUNE FROST has a unique and memorable visual aesthetic. The aural landscape of the film is equally impressive, combining rich surround sound with its frequent songs, ranging from spiritual chants to hip hop. Perhaps to less success, the dialogue of the film is a mix of politics and poetry, full of repeating phrases and illusions. Songs without music. It’s rendered with passion and creativity, but sometimes you wish that people would just have a normal conversation without all the allusions.
Most surprising, is that the film is almost entirely void of what would be called action. This is truly a political musical first, second, and third. Its form kind of hiding the thinness of the narrative in the film. There’s a lot of talking and singing about the state of the world, but not a lot of doing in the film. Its perhaps fitting for the point the film is making, all the way to its final images of defiance, but this fits more firmly with the likes of WELCOME II THE TERRORDOME and SPACE IS THE PLACE than BLACK PANTHER or THE MATRIX. The lack of narrative momentum is sometimes a detriment to the film after the points have been clearly made. And, sometimes it’s unclear what naming the characters “Memory”, “Philosophy”, or “Technology” really brings to the table other than consciousness of the films philosophical aims. The name “Martyr Loser King” can stay though as a great bit of naming and symbolism, both funny and clever.
NEPTUNE FROST is destined for cult film status, but it certainly looks like it could inspire any number of films. It’s impassioned and visionary. It doesn’t all work, but it’s the kind of film that puts faith in the idea that individual expression isn’t dead in film.
NEPTUNE FROST plays once more at the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival on May 2, 2022 at 6:30 pm at the Oriental Theatre. The 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 21, 2022 until May 5, 2022. You can get tickets at mkefilm.org.