'Vanishing Waves' is Mesmerizing, Erotic, and Soulful Sci-Fi

Directed by: Kristina Buozyte; Runtime: 124 minutes
Grade: B+

There's a lot about the human brain and its processes that are relatively unknown outside of theories, namely about the fragility of memories and the state of consciousness within those trapped in a dormant state. Cinema's use of this vagueness evolves with time as more concrete information emerges, but oftentimes the gap between fact and fiction is foregone for the thrill of storytelling, where the conflict it breeds becomes vastly more important than the science and ethics behind it. Vanishing Waves, a Lithuanian production from writer/director Kristina Buozyte, approaches those themes head-on by asking the question: "What might occur if a male research scientist networked with the mind of a female coma patient, enabling them to physically interact in the fabric of normal memories and mildly abstract thoughts?" What results is a resonant, provocative, versatile expression of morality and sensation, a lyrical sci-fi exploration of the desperation of loneliness and the need for sensual connection.

Granted, Vanishing Waves doesn't break any new ground with the physical and psychological structure it explores, integrating doses of Altered States with the science-lite thrills of The Cell and Inception (and a wee bit of Fringe). After computer simulations suggest that neurotransmission with a comatose body should be possible with cutting-edge tools, Lukas (Marius Jampolskis), an obsessive young scientist with a rocky marriage, straps into the networking gear, gets into an isolation tank, and syncs with the mind of a then-unknown patient. With a bit of trial and error due to sensory overload and attunement, eventually he lands within a semi-corporeal dreamscape where he interacts with a woman ... or, more accurately, with her thoughts and memories. When Lukas experiences this for the first time, his hesitation to report the full truth of what he's seen -- and felt -- complicates his future sessions, the peculiar and sexually-charged bond he builds with "Aurora" (Jurga Jutaite) meddling with both his personal life and the veracity of the research data.

Director Buozyte's disciplined, deliberately-paced script with co-writer Bruno Samper tiptoes the line between real concepts and technobabble for its harder sci-fi backbone, as it becomes clear that they takes Vanishing Waves' science and philosophy seriously. The explanations of how this advanced tech works -- and how it affects both the user and the subject -- maintain a balance between unavoidable outlandishness and relative practicality, occurring during conversations that rarely feel like easy opportunities to merely unload info. Buozyte seems to understand how vague and theoretical the concept can appear (and has), so she's taken proactive measures to make its quirks and logical challenges as relatable as possible, down to the ethical concerns of Lukas' evolving conundrum. Once Lukas drops into the partly-conceptual realm of the female subject's mind, the stage is set for an involving clash of pathos and morality that has justified the means that brought him there, which will become important as the film progresses.

Vanishing Waves opens the door for a personal human exploration due its levelheaded managing of the tech, driven by the gripping -- albeit self-controlled -- visual temperament of Aurora's mental space. Focused on the frailty of the boundaries that separate reality, memory, emotion, and mental fabrication, Buozyte not only shows an interest in those lines, but also how they're crossed and react to the psychological integrity of both the research subject and the researcher. This happens almost entirely within the arresting imagery captured by cinematographer Feliksas Abrukauskas that twists the conventions of a dream-like space: ethereal waves and clouds, a boxy half-erected domicile, and the expanses of an isolated beach, forming an environment that's as eerie as it is familiarly idyllic. This isn't a project that purely wants to occupy the audience's mind with whimsical visuals, though, as doing so would distract from the human perspective it conveys about it being a space easily mistaken for reality or fantasy.

It'd be natural to assume that the relationship between Lukas and Aurora would revolve around conversation -- calls of anxiety from a mind trapped in a comatose body wouldn't feel out-of-place -- but for the most part Vanishing Waves chooses to avoid straightforward communication in lieu of obscure, sensory-driven contact, a raw melding of synapses and dreamscapes. Part of that boils down to the roots of Buozyte's artistic desires: there's a degree of overt eroticism in their time together that's both intentionally provocative and undeniably poetic, where their passion delves into something closer to a Freudian psychosexual interaction. Calling their relationship a "romance" would probably be inaccurate, as would judging the chemistry between actors Jurga Jutaite and Marius Jampolskis based on that convention; their intimacy is raw, playful, confusing, and at times eerily vacant. Perhaps that's part of the intent and perhaps it isn't, but either way it's easy to comprehend why Lukas would become enamored.

Driven by soul-stirring music and progressively involved visual motifs, such as an almost Cronenberg-like melding of writhing bodies and distressing glimpses at memories, very little of Vanishing Waves stays clear-cut as it approaches its bittersweet conclusion. Director Buozyte allows these vivid sensations to remain Lukas' and Aurora's guiding force through sly abstractions, extended shots in the vein of Andrei Tarkovsky or Stanley Kubrick, and even subtle meta-hints towards what the director aims to accomplish (there's a moment where Lukas plays a gorgeous video-game, ICO, involving a protagonist leading a ghostly girl out of their prison world). Whether some images linger longer than necessary for the point to get across doesn't really matter: none of them are devoid of relevance, no matter how lengthy, conceptual, or sensual. They create a captivating, often lurid mosaic that escalates in tension, conveying enough emotional clarity to justify their duration as a stunning examination of the human brain's mystique.

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