‘White Plastic Sky’ Review: A Rotoscoped Sci-fi Odyssey to the Edge of Life, Love and Death

According to Hungarian animator duo Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó, we have only a century until the dessicated, infertile dystopia of their animated festival hit “White Plastic Sky” becomes our reality. A few years ago, this grave and wistful film’s 2123 setting would have seemed hyperbolic, but the rapidity with which we seem to be hurtling toward environmental collapse recently makes its parched landscapes — it could be the surface of Mars but for the rusted hulls of ships jutting up like tombstones from arid lakebeds — seem only a mild exaggeration of the wastelands our literal grandchildren might have to call home. 

Mirroring an animation style in which the somnolent characters are less expressive than the richly detailed, vanishing-point backgrounds however, it is harder to believe in Bánóczki and Szabó’s vision of transformation undergone in the human psyche in an equivalent time frame. In this 2123, life can only be supported in cities — here Budapest — encased in massive domes, and even then resources are so scarce that a mandatory 50-year limit has been placed on human life. At that age, people are rounded up to undergo a biological intervention that turns them into trees which bear edible leaves that can then nourish the next generation of humans.

The science, though outlandish, feels oddly plausible, doubtless down to the scrupulous research into current trends in biochemistry and environmental engineering that went into the screenplay (which was co-written by the directors). But the apparent docility of the population is another matter. Considering we’ve just experienced a global crisis during which a not insignificant segment felt indignantly oppressed at the prospect of having to wear a mask to Wal-Mart, the idea that whole societies have more or less peaceably accepted a vastly curtailed lifespan for the good of the species as a whole, is maybe the most far-fetched part of a drama which also features people turning into semi-sentient plant life. 

Stefan (Tamás Keresztes) is one such stoic. In fact, as a psychologist, it is his job to help people accept their mandatory 50-year death sentence, and that of those they love. But Stefan, who is 28, and his wife Nora (Zsófia Szamosi) who is in her early 30s, have recently lost a child — this controlled society has apparently not yet found a way to eradicate such tragedies. Nora, still weighed down by grief, has elected to undergo the implantation procedure a full 18 years early, as a form of socially acceptable — indeed, socially heroized  – sacrificial suicide. But when he discovers Nora has proceeded with her plan without telling him, all of Stefan’s professional sangfroid deserts him. Now, the film morphs into a quest journey, like some existentially-inclined video game, as he infiltrates the facility where Nora is being implanted, and recruits a renegade scientist to the cause of rescuing her and finding a way to undo the process.  

There’s a little “Soylent Green” here and a dash of “Logan’s Run.” But “White Plastic Sky” is not similarly interested in how it might change human behaviour to know the moment, and/or the manner, of our deaths. Instead, Bánóczki and Szabó use their impressively imagined alternate future as a lever to crack open and peer into other metaphysical mysteries, most centrally the mystery of love, and the question of how much of ourselves we owe to the people who love us. The moments when Stefan and Nora reconnect, as they voyage through the ruined terrain outside the dome on a Hail Mary mission to find the one man who can save her, are the film’s most touching, because they are also the simplest, the most ordinary. 

Rotoscoping, a technique in which animation is essentially traced over live-action performance, has an inherently distancing effect, reducing realism to a starkly outlined sketch. But in a way, that suits the themes of “White Plastic Sky” — this is a world where humans have been encouraged to regard ownership over their own bodies as a temporary lease with no option to buy, and of course such people might feel dislocated and abstracted from the realness of their flesh and bone. But it also means that when it comes to relating to the characters or really feeling for their plight, the film remains at a cool remove, even as it reaches for a finale that evokes Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” in its desire to suggest that love can transcend just about anything — even, perhaps, our species’ terrible drive toward self-destruction.

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