Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Review: Out of Darkness

Prehistoric life was nasty, brutish, and short

I imagine, on some level, it is cheating to set a work of historical fiction in the stone age. Historical fiction is by definition set during a historical period, and history concerns the study of records of the past. How does that work when you are literally setting your narrative in a time period before written records? As Bernard Cornwell admitted in his comments on his novel Stonehenge, there comes a point far back enough when you’re essentially writing fantasy (Cornwell’s novel is indeed a sort of fantasy, reminiscent of sword-and-sorcery fiction, and it is quite enjoyable). I feel like some sort of literary pedant must have unreasonably strong opinions on such an issue, but the makers of the British prehistoric horror film (of sorts) Out of Darkness, originally released in 2022 under the title The Origin. It is directed by Andrew Cumming in his directorial debut, and written by Ruth Greenberg.

The plot is a very simple one: a band of prehistoric humans in what is now the Scottish Highlands is migrating to greener pastures. They are a motley band, some related to one another and some who have fallen in with them. These are people who have almost nothing, beyond each other. Life for them is nasty, brutish, and short, without the assistance of anything that could be considered ‘society.’ This has a welcome effect of narrowing down the spectrum of emotions, of boiling down a survival narrative to its bare essentials, and it is an enthralling experience.

This is a film whose dialogue is conveyed entirely through subtitles. I have no problem with such films, usually; I adored Godzilla: Minus One. What you realize, not long into the rather short film, is that this language is entirely fictional (I certainly could not discern any real language in it). It then dawns upon you that several actors spent Lord knows how long memorizing what is effectively gibberish for ninety minutes of entertainment. An ear sensitive to such things, though, realizes that their language is not gibberish; there are consistent words for concepts that you can piece together if you pay attention. For a relatively sparse narrative, it is quite the act of worldbuilding, and it deserves applause.

There is something incredibly atmospheric in the choice to film this story in the Scottish highlands. It is a sparse, rugged landscape, the land where bagpipes once summoned armies, and sturdy people went up and down these hills as a matter of course. Setting this in a flatter country would have made this band of characters’ journey feel too easy (even though such an ordeal would never actually be easy). It is a land that the English, and indeed the lowland Scots, have stereotyped as wild, and it certainly feels wild here.

So much of this film is quiet, with only the sounds of movement and nature, and the occasional noise of terror. Silence in horror films is commonly used to create a sense of paranoia; you expect something to be there by virtue of the fact that this is a horror movie, if for no other reason (silence can be comfortable, when writing or reading or sleeping or what have you, after all). This film knows not to spoil the atmosphere with too much sound. Related to the above paragraph, it is the silence that really brings out the environment; these hills feel ancient, because they are ancient, and you are confronted with how little we know about our ancestors. An extended part of the film is set in a dark forest, late at night, and you will come to understand why forests are places of despair and dread in so many myths and fairy tales.

I feel like this film is doing something interesting with gender. We have this persistent stereotype of human beings naturally tending towards alpha males (and always males) that just won’t go away; it wasn’t even true with wolves, where the theory came from (it came from observation of wolves in captivity, which is the equivalent of making generalizations about human behavior from prisons)! You have a gruff male character who clearly fancies himself the leader of this band, and he is one of the characters who consistently pushes violence to solve their problems. This is a film that is willing to show that violence has its limits as a solver of problems, and that cooperation is a beneficial thing for the survival of a species, contrary to vulgar, misanthropic (and often racist) readings of Charles Darwin and in accord with Peter Kropotkin as well as much of modern biology. It is a much-needed riposte to the conservative appropriation of the prehistoric (see the QAnon shaman on that ingloriously stupid day that the Capitol was stormed). However, it also does not render its women as unrealistically pure and matronly, for they are also capable of being tempted by the cruelty innate in this way of living.

I don’t want to spoil this film, but the ending, and indeed the revelation of what the mysterious threat that vexes these people, is one with a certain radicalism to it. This is an ending that challenges your ideas of tolerance, of how much you are willing to accept their humanity (and in this time period, there are certain nuances to that which are only otherwise found in the speculative genres). It forces you to contemplate the narrowness of our empathy, to confront that which within us weeps for Ukrainians but gleefully cheers the crushing of the skulls of Palestinian children (for the record, I support both, as I feel all people of good will should should, and have contributed stories to charity anthologies for both causes). It is a challenge to love every living thing, in the way that Buddhism or Jainism advocate.

Out of Darkness is an incredibly tense film, one that benefits seeing it in theaters. The sheer darkness of a theater emphasizes the totality of this experience. The darkness of the title seems to seep out of the stage and envelope you, forcing you to gaze down this abyss of hard choices and rough living. But it will not be in theaters forever, in which case I encourage you to watch it in a dark room. It is a haunting experience that I recommend wholeheartedly.


Highlights: how goddamned eerie this film is

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.