Away, the first feature-length film from Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis is as much a video game as it is a movie. I should clarify: this is not a criticism of the film. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of the films numerous influences, a list that also includes Miyazaki, Mallick, and Tarkovsky. But this is not something unique to Away, as many films from recent years have taken clear inspiration from the form and flow of video games. Kubo and the Two Strings was effectively a platform game; Marvel films, with their extensive universe and task-completion based narratives, often feel like an online-RPG; Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch incorporated actual gameplay into the viewing experience; the list goes on. Away, however, is particularly noteworthy in this regard because it feels like the culmination of video game cinema —a perfect hybrid of the two forms.
From the onset, with a nameless young boy waking up hanging from a parachute that’s snagged on a tree, Away is lifting the best elements of video games. Tension is introduced almost immediately when the boy is approached by a monster— an unspeaking, unsleeping shadowy giant whose only perceivable goal is to pursue him and drain his life. The boy takes refuge from the monster in a secluded glade. There he finds a backpack containing a map of the island on which he is stranded and a motorbike. The former points to where he needs to go, the latter is his means of traveling there. Like a video tutorial, the audience is efficiently introduced to every important element of the film, the function of every object and the goal of every character. By speeding through explanation, Zilbalodis creates the space to focus on what he excels at, creating an experience.
This proves telling of Away’s narrative holistically, or rather lack thereof. The “story” is little more than an extended chase, a constantly evolving game of cat-and-mouse, the boy riding his motorcycle across the island and the monster pursuing him. Each location the boy encounters sees him presented with a new challenge, like turning a rickety bridge into a booby trap by dropping a boulder on it. In these moments the film runs the risk of feeling like a series of mini-games, all objective. But Zilbalodis is sure to inject enough emotion to prevent them from becoming didactic or episodic. The tenets that make for good gameplay are used to enhance Away’s inherently cinematic elements rather than replace them. Still, the film keeps to the bare essentials of storytelling; anything that cannot be communicated via image alone is expunged from the story.
This approach is born out of necessity as much as it is auteurism. Away is a completely solo project with Zilbalodis acting as director, editor, animator, and composer. However, this only makes the film more impressive. What he manages to achieve with the simple animation technology available to him is astounding. The monster is especially evocative, despite being little more than a collection of semi-translucent black polygons stacked atop each other. Zilbalodis is not unaware of the limitations of his animation technology either, and he smartly uses the film’s tone to compensate for them. Away plays like a lucid dream, that intersection of reality and phantasm, where what is logical is overridden by what is portentous. This allows the film to remain light on detail, both in terms of design and narrative, without feeling lazy. Who the boy is, for example, is largely left up to interpretation. We find out that he is the sole survivor of an airplane crash. However, where he was going and what caused the crash can only be inferred through context clues like the early 20th-century design of the airplane.
Coming in at a brisk 75-minutes, Zilbalodis is careful not to overstay his welcome. He does not attempt anything that he cannot easily achieve with his limited tools. And despite those limitations, he manages to create something that is fresher than a great deal of current studio animation. Certainly, this film is not for everyone. The spare narrative and lack of explanations will leave some audiences feeling cold, as will the understated emotional current. But there is a magnetism about the proceedings, the sheer originality and artistry of what’s on display make it impossible not to appreciate the film and the obvious human effort that went into creating it. Away is an achievement of indie animation, the exciting emergence of a new creative voice, and the best video game you never played.