My notes on Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (Low-Flying Aircraft)
A Portuguese-Swedish co-production, based on a story by J.G. Ballard. In the future, the population has fallen drastically so that several smaller European countries are ‘shut’ and fascist cops are charged with destroying at birth the mutant ‘zotes’ who are set to succeed humanity. Swedes Judite (Margarida Marinho) and André Foster (Miguel Gilherme) arrive in a near-derelict Portuguese resort to see Dr Gould (Rui Morrison) – Judite is heavily-pregnant with what she hopes is a human baby, though the downbeat tone of the film pretty much rules this possibility out, and it emerges that Gould, father of a zote, is a one-man conspiracy out to preserve and encourage the new species. A cackling cadre of geriatrics hang out around the pool, giving the young folks variously a hard time, and a posse of ‘beachniks’ who scrounge food turn out to be a growing colony of zotes, including the doctor’s daughter Carmen (Rita So). Gould, a typical Ballardian obsessive, spends a lot of time in his biplane, spraying fluorescent green symbols on the landscape. The addition of glowing green hieroglyph graffiti to an actual abandoned resort does give the leftover locale a futuristic, end-of-civilisation feel.
The set-up suggests that someone has set out to provide a sci-fi rationale for the world of Last Year at Marienbad – a key text, where the New Waves of 1960s science fiction and film intersect. Thematically, the shrug of a plot feels like an alternate take on the third part of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive series (with a touch of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future). A foetus scan (a good, minimal effect) shows the heroine’s zote baby to be a large-mawed horror with black empty eye-sockets and we’re told they tend to kill their parents, but Carmen, who has new wave shades and a hairdo to match, is a slinky genius who has invented a new alphabet (the zotes can only see fluorescent green, but have other senses) and the inference is that the mutants are better fit to a changed world than oldstyle humans, who are represented by the grotesquely caricatured old folks and fairly standard s-f movie dystopia goons.
Ballard’s sketchy, off-the-peg characters will always be a problem in movie adaptations and this has euro artfilm longeurs where the actors are required to switch into repeat mode (Marinho especially suffers these spells). The humans here are on the way out, so the film doesn’t feel the need to get too attached to them – though the small-scale production means that we only really get glimpses of the unimaginable and unimagined zote world that is being born along with Judita’s baby. It has moments of horror and strange beauty: notably, the squirmy spectacle of a pregnant woman in pain, doing swimming pool gymnastics as the mutant baby claws inside her, and a final shot that reveals a whole planet covered in glowing green heirogylphs. Directed and written by Solveig Nordlund.
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