Writer and Director: Dana Ziyasheva
Inventing a new genre that can only be described as cutesy dystopian, Dana Ziyasheva’s Greatland is a strange satire on government, elitism and the power of media in a totalitarian society. Yet, the political messages are overwhelmed by intense computer game-inspired graphics, a Day-Glo child’s drawing and cheap carnival aesthetic that revels in its kookiness but ultimately disappears inside itself.
On his 15th birthday Ulysses is instructed by ‘Mother’ to attend the temple for a conversion ceremony where he becomes a man. Given a baby rabbit to take care of, Ulysses is troubled when his best friend and potential love Ugly Duck is sent to Redemption Island during an equivalent female sorting ceremony. On an adventure that throws the hero into the path of his real father and the ruling class, can Ulysses save his girl and rescue Greatland from itself?
Strip away the visual and Greatland is a fairly standard sci-fi story of a controlled society coming to its senses as a handful of individuals rebel against the established order. But this is a film that carves itself quite purposefully down the middle; the first section is devoted to establishing the sugary, glittery, streamer-filled world of Greatland itself where natural procreation has been abolished and men marry trees while being controlled by their watches.
In the other half of the film, the central character travels beyond the bounds of his native land to experience a more recognisable world where his perfectly sensible and hardworking father exists, and Ziyasheva makes her political points about the lawless depravity of moneyed leaders and their internal power struggles that only have true ramifications for the ordinary man. The ‘normality’ of this part of the film and the education of Ulysses contrasts awkwardly with life in Greatland.
Ziyasheva concentrates too hard on the window dressing, trying to build her wacky world where ordinary activities are exaggerated beyond reason. People divide over whether cats and dogs should hold political power, every social strata has its own name – Altruist, Optimist, Great and Felinist – and there is a mysterious virus which appears to equate to menstruation which seems unfortunately regressive in its attitude. Trying to keep track of these elements when the plot is frequently interrupted by a tangential psychedelic TV station becomes virtually impossible, and many may check-out of this 105-minute movie long before the story gets going.
Viewers may never have been so relieved to see Nick Moran in a film before, his entrance not only marks the transition to a clearer narrative but brings with it a degree of gravitas that will sustain you to the end. Pretty much everything he is given to say is bunkum and there is a lot of driving around in a golf buggy or striding purposefully around a mansion, but Moran seems to be in a different (and better) film than anyone else, managing credibility and developing a sweet father-son relationship with Arman Darbo’s Ulysses.
Darbo, to his credit, carries the film well with a restrained performance that projects a low-level dissatisfaction with his life, Mother’s control and a lack of enthusiasm for his predetermined future that leads him to a different kind of life. Chloe Ray Warmoth gives plenty of hesitancy as Ugly Duck while Eric Roberts and Jackie Loeb chew the scenery as the spoiled governors poisoning their land.
Greatland is over the top, bonkers and often impenetrable, a fever dream of video games, manga and shabby fiesta, but with a comment on our willingness to build our lives around computerised communication devices and the docility of our response to social inequality. Underneath the unnecessarily dense surface there is the shadow of purpose that just rescues Ziyasheva’s film from self-indulgence.