Dystopias can roughly be split into two categories: shiny and gritty. This split is most visible through two works of 20th century British sci-fi: there’s Brave New World, in which drugs keep everyone looking beautiful and collectively docile, and 1984, in which the boot of fascism smashes down on the characters’ heads over and over again.
Shifting between shiny and gritty dystopias is Chino Moya’s 2020 movie Undergods. Now that this hidden sci-fi gem is streaming on Amazon Prime, here’s why you should check it out.
The Spanish-born and U.K-based Moya — a music-video director who worked on St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” video — has delivered an anthology sci-fi drama, moving between three stories that don’t so much connect as flow together like sequences from a dream. Together, they explore ugly European futures where marriages crumble in the midst of labor camps, wealth offers no protection from the brutality of tomorrow, and self-help cults threaten to ruin a perfectly acceptable karaoke birthday party.
In interviews, like one on the Nerdly podcast, Moya has said there was “a lot of background story” in the world of Undergods, which helped him and the rest of the crew — “when the set designers were designing the sets, when the costume designer was designing the costumes, even the actors when they were preparing” — understand the basic rules of the world.
Adding a narrative richness to Undergods, these rules are not explained to the viewer. No names are given to the cities and suburban-style locations of Undergods, no time periods are clarified, and no greater political systems are explored. The people within its worlds simply exist.
That includes Z (Géza Röhrig) and K (Johann Myers), two sanitation workers who drive around the city picking up bodies while talking about their dreams. They tell each other stories, ones in which both characters are participants.
With bodies piling up in that truck, Moya smash-cuts to images of a stew being eaten by Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth (Hayley Carmichael), an unhappily married couple who live by themselves in an apartment building — or so they think, until neighbor Harry (Ned Dennehy) shows up at their door claiming he’s locked himself out.
The two offer to let Harry stay, and the guest charms Ruth out of her broken marriage. But when confronted at knifepoint by Ron, Harry turns sadistically cruel towards both members of the household before wandering off. Ron follows him into the elevator with the knife, and the result of their struggle is only made clear when a real estate agent, trying to sell more rooms in the building to a dad and daughter, opens the door.
Just as quickly as the viewer enters Ron and Ruth’s life, Moya moves along to that dad and daughter, the former telling a bedtime story to the latter. Said story is about rich industrialist Hans (Eric Godon), who meets an eccentric foreigner (Jan Bijvoet) with a remarkable business proposal.
Godon gives one of the finest performances in Undergods, especially when talking to his daughter Maria (Tanya Reynolds). The two share an easy chemistry, which is challenged when Maria brings home a pretentious writer boyfriend Johann (Tadhg Murphy). When the foreigner, scorned by Hans, kidnaps Maria, Hans forces Johann to help find her; theirs is a journey I could have easily followed for an entire movie.
But Z and K have other plans. They interrupt the two on their heroic journey, and one gets the sense that this is not a world where anything heroic is rewarded. Filled with Brutalist architecture and pale blues and greys, Undergods owes its style to Roger Deakins’ work on 1984, which also referenced architecture associated with Soviet oppression. But Undergods is also able to innovate on its own, especially with Wojciech Golczewski’s pulsing electronic score.
After the kidnapping section, Undergods moves on to another troubled marriage visited by a stranger: that of Rachel (Kate Dickie) and Dominic (Adrian Rawlins, best known as James Potter from the Harry Potter series). One night, they’re visited by her ex Sam (Sam Louwyck), whom they’d believed dead for years.
Dominic is up for a promotion at work, and his boss (the always welcome Burn Gorman) wants both of them to come to his birthday party. But Rachel quickly loses interest, alarming Dominic. She’d rather spend all her time with her eerily silent ex-husband, trying to get him to talk again with special lights and poetry books she’s bought, which scream “pseudo-science.”
Talking with the Glasgow Film Festival, Moya explained that he was born in Spain’s “liminal period,” immediately after militaristic dictator Francisco Franco’s death but before democracy kicked in. “I was born in the middle of this in-between,” he said, bridging “the totalitarian 20th century and the neoliberal late 20th century.”
Undergods occupies a similar liminal space, in which oppression is both obvious and slippery. Not everything makes sense, and perhaps a helping hand could have added a little more clarity, but it’s fascinating to watch these sci-fi tales play out.
Undergods is now streaming on Amazon Prime.