With summertime approaching, once again Hollywood will be happily engaging us in our desire for death and destruction that ranks an 11 out of 10 on the apocalypse meter. Indeed, our appetite for all things end of the world seems to know no bounds or ages ,whether its superhero blockbusters, the weekly trials of the survivors of The Walking Dead, or even books aimed at young people like The Hunger Games and Divergent series. Maybe it has something to do with the fantasy though. Maybe it’s fun to live vicariously in a broken world for a couple of hours through the magic of the screen, or the written word. After all, you can’t live in a post-apocalyptic world in real-life, can you?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course, because the answer given in Above and Below is that you can. At one point, a man named Rick, who lives in the tunnels beneath Las Vegas with his wife Cindy, addresses the matter directly, saying that if the end of the world comes, then he can make his way in it.in fact, he already has been. The end actually comes every now and again for him and Cindy, when the infrequent rain floods the tunnels and washes away their lives and forces them to begin again. If there was ever any glamour in the apocalypse, such notions get washed away with the rain water.
Above and Below interweaves three different segments, including the tale of Rick and Cindy. In addition to them, also meet Dan, who lives a solitary life out in the desert in his solar powered bunker. There’s also April, an army veteran who’s part of a project in the Utah desert designed to emulate what life may be like on the planet Mars, complete with a self-sustaining colony and field trips outside in EVA suits. Like Cloud Atlas, the three stories are connected together with a thin thread, but director Nicolas Steiner’s point is very clear: there already are different worlds all around us, and they can only be seen by those that know about them.
Steiner’s approach to telling these stories is very hands off; there are no title cards, no voiceover narration, and no talking heads sequences. He simply drops us off in the worlds and leaves it up to the viewer to fend for themselves in terms of keeping track of everything. If there are answers to basic questions, like who are you and what are you doing here, then they come out in due course of the film. Dan’s backstory isn’t told till about halfway though Above and Below’s nearly two-hour running time, and it’s a tale of sadness involving the perfect middle class life that lead to financial ruin thanks to his second wife’s secret crack addiction. Is any of that real, though? Who knows?
The film occasionally draws attention to the similarities in the desperateness of the three situations, as shrewd editing and creative use of the camera sometimes allow for a seamless flow from the red sands of Utah, to the more desolate view of Dan’s backyard, to the darkness underneath the bright lights of Vegas. One of the most effective scenes shows the versatility of ping pong, with Dan playing alone in his bunker, two of the “Martians” playing against each other in their bulky suits, and Rick tossing one ball after the other and watching them flow down stream in the sewer water. Who knew ping pong could establish such mood?
In watching Above and Below, it’s clear that Steiner has an affinity for Rick and Cindy’s story, as the most time is spent with them. It’s understandable, too, as there’s something about the life that they and other people who live in the Vegas tunnels lead that suggests a whole forgotten society, something that gets much closer to his core thesis about other worlds’ sight unseen. The Martians are playacting and Dan is deeply damaged, but their lives lack the feeling of being trapped that Rick and Cindy’s have.
At the same time though, there’s a begrudging respect for the Vegas couple, and how they carved a niche for themselves. It feels at times that Steiner might have been cherry-picking how the couple was shown, and at one point the camera cuts away when they’re fighting. But on the other hand, there’s a scene ripe with moral ambiguity as it’s implied that Rick is out committing a crime for money while Cindy convincingly trick or treats for candy thanks to her short stature. Predictably, their story culminates in the rain’s return, beginning the cycle of re-settlement again as their life is literally washed away. The documentary crew show no sign of lending a hand either, as the couple try valiantly to save as much as they can.
The lack of commentary here is almost startling, but at the same time it’s quite refreshing. There’s no judgment on these people and no aim to try and explain why they lead such eclectic lives off the grid, where their lives are going and what their end goals are. There’s just the message that this is life, and that as strange as it maybe to the viewing audience, it is a life being lived by actual people. Above and Below is an immersive viewing experience that requires patience and open-mindedness, but it’s richly rewarding for those that make it though to the end.
Above and Below is a fascinating, cinematic exploration of strange new worlds right here on Earth (even if they're pretending to be in space). A one-of-a-kind, must see documentary.