A new breed of sci-fi: icky and dull
Rating: WombWombWombWomb

Written and directed by Benedek Fliegauf. Starring Eva Green, Matt Smith, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, István Lénárt, Hannah Murray, Ruby O. Fee, Tristan Christopher, Jesse Hoffmann, Natalia Tena, Ella Smith, Wunmi Mosaku, Alexander Goeller, Gina Stiebitz, Adrian Wahlen.

Also opening this week:

When “art” films go bad: Benedek Fliegauf´s Womb is a deadening slog that takes a fascinating, unsettling premise – a woman gives birth to her late lover´s clone, and raises him as her son – and takes its sweet time to do next to nothing with it. There´s talent both in front of and behind the camera – the film does look great – but also a real problem on a conceptual level.

At the tender age of nine, young Rebecca spends a memorable summer at her grandfather´s seaside cottage (though the exact location is unspecified, the film was shot on the coasts of Germany); it´s memorable because of Tommy, the young friend she makes. But when summer ends, Rebecca is off to Tokyo and the rest of her life, leaving Tommy behind.

Some years later, after studying geology, Rebecca (now played by Eva Green) returns to the isolated seaside town, moves into her (presumably deceased) grandfather´s cottage, and looks up Tommy (Matt Smith). She finds him with another woman in his bed, but no matter – Rebecca and Tommy have a connection, and the two pick up right where they left off. Tommy is now an anarchist and cockroach breeder, about to let his insects loose at a newly opened facility.

These opening scenes are strange, but nostalgic and sparse and even haunting, and the best that Womb has to offer. The cinematography is gorgeous (the camera rarely leaves the seaside locales) and the characters are intriguing and nicely realized (with little dialogue) by Green, who I´ve been a fan of since Bertolucci´s The Dreamers, and Smith, who sci-fi fans will know as David Tennant´s replacement on Doctor Who. And Lesley Manville and Peter Wight provide a memorable presence as Tommy´s parents.

But then Tommy suddenly dies, and the film switches gears; not in style or tone, but in content. Rebecca decides to clone him (this is the future, apparently, though you´re not likely to have noticed), and carry the clone fetus, and raise the boy as her own son…and then, well, we all know what inevitable ickiness is coming.

Art and science fiction can mix well, as evidenced by Tarkovsky´s Solaris and (maybe) Soderbergh´s remake, but this is the second time in recent months I´ve been really disappointed by a film that heads down that route; the other film was Mark Romanek´s widely praised Never Let Me Go, which I respected but simply didn´t engage with. Womb is thematically similar, in that there is some (just barely explored) prejudice against clones in its future society.

The story in Womb (and Never Let Me Go) would not be possible without science fiction, yet the filmmakers are careful to keep any and all sci-fi elements off-camera and out of mind, as if they´re ashamed of them. The focus is on the human story, sure, but it´s a cheat to show us something only possible in a different world, and then hide that world from us; personally, I had less empathy for these characters, because I had no understanding of the world that surrounded them.

There is very little music in Womb, almost none – what is there is only a few occasional notes. Instead, there´s a constant low howl of wind on the soundtrack, which is the sound of the seaside, or maybe, the sound of the field Rebecca was in when Tommy was killed.

After an intriguing opening, Womb plays its cards too quickly: it lost me not because of the thematic unpleasantness, but the thematic obviousness. The slow, methodical pacing is fine, but not when there´s nothing new to say. It´s the polar opposite of the style Michael Bay took with similar themes in The Island, but the ultimate results are distressingly similar.

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