It’s a serious, stirring science fiction film with imagery like this. What else you need to know?

Full disclosure: part of the reason I’m going to be writing a glowing review of Love is that it consistently defied my expectations. Mostly I expected the movie to be some weird commercial for Angels and Airwaves. Additionally, I expected it to be some kind of knock-off of The Fountain, one of my favorite films of all time. Above all, I expected some kind of time-related narrative about love, but certainly something more direct, in the form of a romance perhaps, than what I got. Instead, Love is about that concept in the most general and perhaps worthy sense. In this movie, the word describes a more general connection to other people than a specific connection from one person to another. The narrative still deals with one primary character, but he is not some Tommy Creo knock-off. Instead, he’s the literal Last Man, an abandoned astronaut and becomes the final witness and chronicler of the end of humankind.

Above all else, Love is a beautiful film with grandiose and stirring imagery and themes which does call The Fountain to mind, but also Moon and even 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a love-letter not only to that idea of human connection, but also to the introspective man-apart science fiction films that have gone before. Like them, Love is not always clear in its intentions and it is only in the final sequences where everything comes together to crystallize into a shape that clarifies everything that came before. It might test your patience here and there, but stick with it and try to remember that everything that happens is about connection and the absence of it, or in the movie’s own terms: love.

Most people are going to be interested in the fact that Angels and Airwaves, a band pretty much no one cares about, did the music. Is it just a music video after all? It isn’t, thankfully. They didn’t do songs for the movie so much as create a score for it and it’s a subtle, beautiful thing. Supplementing the images and inherent quiet of the film (in dialogue and assorted sfx terms, this is a quiet movie), the score is there to enhance and punctuate the story not to overshadow it. I have to hand it to Angels and Airwaves for showing that restraint as it serves this film so very well where it could have been a major liability, something that could have taken an otherwise powerful piece and turned into something laughable.

Just when you thought Dances With Wolves moved to Canada…

The film opens in the middle of a siege during the American Civil War. A soldier named Lieutenant Briggs (Bradley Horne) waxes Terence Malick about war and isolation as he is assigned to be the sole survivor of a battle that the commanding officer (Corey Richardson, badass, pictured above) is certain is going to take his Union troops down to the last man. Briggs is given this pass to go and be one of the first men to see something wondrous. What this is we don’t discover until near the end. Periodically, we come back to Briggs to hear a few more pieces of his ruminations.

As we see more of him, we begin to connect his thoughts to the plight of Captain Lee Miller (Gunner Wright, on whose shoulders this movie utterly rests), an astronaut on the first mission to the International Space Station in over 20 years. That the film takes place primarily around his experiences is evident rather quickly, less evident is that those experiences are happening in the 2040’s, which explains the artificial gravity and appearance of the station (still looks like it’s from 1975, of course).

Made for no budget, the sets are impressive as much here as during the opening scenes of the Civil War battle.

Miller is in serious trouble, we find out. After a cryptic message from Earth, all contact is cut off. Our only hint of what’s going on down there comes from a haunting scene of flashes visible from space, flashes which connect directly to clusters of light suddenly going out. Whatever’s going on down there, it’s got to be pretty bad, and it’s possible Miller has no idea as we never see him witness this. Utterly alone, we watch as he tries to maintain his daily routine through the stress and isolation. It’s not clear until near the end just how long he’s been up there (and even then, there’s a bit of a jump forward in time which implies it’s even longer than stated), but we get a sense of it as he starts to come apart at the edges. Much like Moon‘s Sam Bell, Miller is just trying to keep it together in extraordinary circumstances. We watch as he devises ways to pass the time, invents relationships with predecessors based on their photos (one, a woman, becomes a sort of imaginary companion), and ultimately descends into a kind of half-mad squalor characterized by a frenzy of subtle and not-so-subtle artistic expression. Chaotic little sculptures are the first of it, made from whatever materials are handy. Eventually, Miller begins to draw scenes and figures from what could be Briggs’ experiences.

Miller’s connection to Briggs seems simple, beyond their first names and ranks anyway, if mysterious: during a power reroute, Miller stumbles on a paper-wrapped journal which we see Briggs writing in, transcribing the meditations we hear, during his scenes. Where the journal is never precisely clear, but the movie does strongly hint at the nature of the connection between these two men, via the journal. I don’t want to spoil it, partly because it’s fun to have that moment of realization for yourself, and partly because details like that aren’t the point of this movie.

Haven’t seen stuff like this since Sunshine.

The only sort of off thing about Love is that it is conspicuously locked into a male perspective. For being a movie about the universal need for connection, and the tragedy of its absence, there’s not a single female character. Besides Miller and Briggs, there’s only a few voices and faces and none get more than a handful of lines. One of those is the astronaut with whom Miller forms his imaginary connection (think Wilson but with tits!). The only other real characters are four men who are interviewed as we see snapshots of some piece of their lives. Each of these men talks about themes that accompany the movie, foreshadowing the trippy 2001 ending. While it’s happening, though, the device seems to be some kind of weird documentary accompaniment and the whole thing feels a bit pretentious even though it also seems totally disconnected from the weird/awesome story of Miller up in space discovering a Civil War journal as we realize he might be the last man in existence. I’m positive that Eubank and his collaborators just fell into that trap of writing from the perspective of men, primarily about men, because they are men but it is still really, really noticeable. Perhaps not a fair criticism but definitely an odd thing that limits the universality of the film’s message.

Thankfully, Gunner Wright’s ability to transmit quiet courage and intense loneliness and vulnerability with pretty much zero “big emotions” scenes is enough to maintain the movie. He really is a discovery, as is Eubank, and his performance is a huge part of what keeps you invested long enough to see where all this is going. Though it doesn’t hold your hand in doing so, the movie does eventually clarify the interviews, Briggs’ scenes, and just what happened on Earth and what it means for Miller. This is where the film most directly riffs on an ancestor. I mentioned 2001 a few times and the last few scenes of Love are like that with a dash of Contact and Mission to Mars thrown in for good measure. I want to be clear that it doesn’t feel derivative or like a rip-off. Eubank knew what he was doing when he referred back to those movies. Without having to spell it out for us, we understand something of what Miller is experiencing and it’s enough to make graceful tone of the ending work against the really bizarre bit of robo-bitch dialogue that plays just before the credits roll.

So while Love isn’t perfect, it’s a really exciting directorial first that delves into a heady mixture of science fiction and the human condition. Beyond that, it’s a gorgeous film, making use of every iota of Eubank’s skill as a cinematographer. And again, Angels and Airwaves put together a score that enhances the proceedings and earns them a pile of respect from me at least. Can’t wait to see what all these guys do next.

In Love, isolation is the worst thing in the universe but somehow maintains a haunting, evocative beauty that is reinforced every chance the movie has.