Meanwhile on Earth Berlinale Review – Just Like Space It’s A Whole Lot Of Nothing

I was absolutely enamored with writer/director Jérémy Clapin’s feature debut, I Lost My Body (2019), when I finally watched it for the first time the other day. An animated movie that used the intimate speficity of every carefully crafted frame and brushstroke within to tell a story that celebrated the smallest of sensations that make up life. And as such, it almost felt more real than a live-action movie would. So when I heard that with his new movie Meanwhile on Earth, this director, who, as far as I’m aware, has only ever worked in animation, would move away from the medium that he clearly understood so well, I was intrigued but also concerned. Ironically, the best part about his first foray into live-action filmmaking are the short animated sequences interspersed throughout the movie.

A few times during Meanwhile on Earth, stunning black-and-white illustrations of two astronauts in space take over the narrative. We are to understand that these are the stories conjured up by Elsa’s (Megan Northman) mind, an aspiring comic artist whose astronaut brother mysteriously disappeared on a space mission three years ago. She’s stricken with grief and imagines how the two of them might reconnect and discover space side by side. And, to her surprise, she gets the chance to do exactly that. Well, at least the part about getting her brother back. When she hears her brother’s voice inside her head and consequently puts a weird, slimy seed into her ear, she’s connected to some sort of being that gives her a simple task. If she wants her brother back, she needs to offer these beings five bodies to take over body snatcher style.

It’s the classic trolley problem inside the even more classic genre concept as a metaphor for grief. But to Meanwhile on Earth’s credit, it starts out very strong, taking advantage of the (cosmic) horror implications of the premise. Having a mysterious voice in your ear that you don’t know where it’s from, who it’s from, or what it’s from is terrifying. Furthermore, hearing your missing brother drift in and out of consciousness and talk about some sort of darkness he’s surrounded by makes it even more terrifying. And smartly, the movie lets our minds do all the heavy lifting here. Unfortunately, the movie starts with a bang and then slowly teeters out without anything substantial happening.

It’s a bit hard to watch, honestly, seeing this promising start to an admittedly pretty basic premise go nowhere. I was on the movie’s side, waiting for it to finally hit big, but it seems content moving in this liminal space of just barely good enough to keep paying attention without ever moving beyond that. For most of the runtime, it does the obvious thing, attempting to make you appreciate the beauty that exists within the life of every single person, and in doing so, it moves in circles without ever really progressing the plot much. Even the arbitrary time limit put on our protagonist doesn’t seem to matter much, as there’s no feeling for the passage of time.

One of I Lost My Body’s (2019) greatest strengths was its almost Malickian quality to create the sense of something transcendental happening within the ordinary occurences on our planet. It’s clear Meanwhile on Earth attempts to do a similar thing, with Dan Levy’s score that swells over moments to give them a level of grandiosity that isn’t present anywhere else in the movie. And cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert often holds on a wide shot of a vast forest of trees or the beautiful night sky and its endless nothingness, but to what end? The message about humanity and the inherent worth of a life is too basic and underdeveloped to deserve this kind of epic treatment that attempts to frame it within a larger framework of our universe or whatever.

I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all bad. Meanwhile on Earth starts strong and then moves into largely servicable territory. But for as strong of a debut feature as I Lost My Body (2019) was, Meanwhile on Earth is an underwhelming follow-up in almost every way. I’d love to see a full feature made out of those animated black-and-white sequences, though; I’d be there for that day one.

Nairon Santos de Morais
Nairon, 21, from Berlin, is a film student by day, and a writer for FlickLuster by night. Movies and video games are his two big passions in life. As long as they are being kept separate, please no more awful video game adaptations.

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