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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 09.30.08] movie review scifi drama

Year: 2002
Release date: Unknown
Director: Solveig Nordlund
Writer: J.G. Ballard (story) & Solveig Nordlund & Colin Tucker & Jeanne Waltz
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Dr. Nathan
Rating: 8 out of 10

Their eyes are black bundles of optic nerves set deep in dark sockets. They only see a kind of fluorescent green. They wander mostly at night. They’re called Zotes. And they just keep on being born. And killed.

Add in a real abandoned Portuguese beach resort as a set, feature highly stylized lighting, take your plot from one of J.G. Ballard’s more disturbing short stories, and you’ve taken a seat in front of Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (2002), Swedish director Solveig Nordlund’s artfully rendered riff on J.G. Ballard’s infanticidal 1976 short story, Low-Flying Aircraft.

If you’ve already read Ballard’s story, all you need to know is Nordlund’s adaptation involves shifting the plot’s point of view from the men to the women. Plus introducing elements suggested in the short story, such as additional hotel characters and a repressive, Orwellian central government. But it’s nuthin to get hung about, as she keeps the original core of the story intact.

If you haven’t read Low-Flying Aircraft, well, shame on you. It’s a story about social conformity, changing your point of view, and learning that men can be good mothers… and how stupid we are at understanding Mother Nature. It has a happy ending, in the Ballardian sense of happy. Yes, Ballard’s basic plot is still there in Nordlund’s version – the baby Zote is given to a young girl Zote after the epiphany that these newborn aren’t monsters – but pretty well everything else – save the location – is changed to a feminine perspective. Not to worry, Nordlund’s is a parallel version: for example, by replacing Dali’s paintings in the short story with state-produced posters showing Zotes on the one hand (Baby head with dark, wormy areas where the eyes should be, and the menacing ZOTE written underneath) and normal babies on the other (complete with slogans such as “This Is Us” and “I Believe In The Future”), Nordlund has created the same psychological war zone as Ballard, pitting eros against thanatos, but using a much less psychologically-sensitive path than in the short story, where the babies are slaughtered without second thought on an individual basis.

But if you’re going to do a Ballard story properly you need to move beyond plot and character into mood, and what makes this movie an exceptional adaptation, given its budget, is Nordlund’s incredibly evocative atmosphere. It’s not the hard edge of JGB’s daylight-dominated story, but the same thing feminized, softened, with most of the cool action wafting thru the hot halls of the abandoned night.

Nordlund can let us breathe this rarified atmosphere because of her incredible luck in discovering the set -– an actual, abandoned resort called Troia on the Portuguese seashore. It was an actual tourist project that was started with Brazilian money and was nationalized after the Portuguese revolution in 1974. Some buildings were completed, but they never finished the big hotels. They stood for years as unfinished ruins, and this abandoned, near-derelict complex is the perfect set for a Ballard story. It’s an amazing locale, with the hollow hulks of hotel towers standing like fossilized ciphers against a polluted sea and blasted, desert landscape. Sorry, you can’t visit -- this set was finally struck in 2006 with lots of dynamite.

Their bleak, lifeless presence also looms in the background of most of Nordlund’s outdoor shots, and she uses most of what these crumbling buildings have to offer, grabbing strong and unusual camera angles to shoot balconies, hallways, atriums, doorways, steps, windowless rooms -- even the basement plumbing system – to maximum the visual effect and the film’s psychological affect, as it is within the hotel’s dark hallways that most of the plot’s interesting moments are played out…

As with any movie that deals with “monsters”, Nordlund’s biggest challenge is to competently show us Ballard’s deformed kids, now named Zotes. And what a Zote she gives us. Enter the sexy Rita So, who plays Carmen, the Zotess with the mostess. Cinematographer Acácio de Almeida’s skill with the lens and Nordlund’s dramatic vision transform her from Ballard’s blind waif into a new sexual icon of the future, an exotic beauty in slink who wanders the dark buildings like a hologram from the future, stalking deserted hallways in her sexy silk dress, Doc Martin boots and funky dark aviator goggles.

The glasses apparently hide her eyes so others won’t recognize her as a Zote, but hey, what else could she be? No kids have survived birth for over 30 years, and she looks to be in her late teens. No matter, she looks very cool. And Carmen gets the best scenes, especially in her basement lair, which she’s furnished in late psychedelic, with more green fluorescent paint, a mirror ball, and an Antiques Roadshow collection of wrist watches with luminous dials. Funky.

Her “normal” counterpart is Judite Foster, the mother-to-be of a probable Zote baby. She’s played by the very womanly Margarida Marinho, a very capable actor cast for this movie at the beginning of her now-successful career. The rest of the cast are competent, if a tad wooden, which can be a drawback in a movie which doesn’t have that much dialogue. There’s a few gratuitous scenes – Judite, drunk, dances on the guest’s dining tables… while they’re eating, and for some reason the dunes are full of “beachniks”, truly deformed people who are fed by the hotel manager. Their presence is unexplained.

The music by Johan Zachrisson is evocative and emotional, but the “special effects” – green paint billowing out behind a crop duster – reveal Nordlund’s small production budget.

When the credits roll, one must applaud Solveig Nordlund for a strong, punchy movie that emphasizes the flow of the action in carefully-chosen edits, offers up an interesting adaptation of the original yarn, and still manages to keep Ballard’s central theme – it’s OK to be different – intact. Seen mainly at film fests (it won a nomination for a Golden Pyramid at the Cairo International Film Fest and a Special Mention at the Coimbra Caminhos do Cinema Português), Nordlund’s Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude is a welcome addition to the somewhat-thin book of Ballard filmography.

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agentorange (12 years ago) Reply

Awesome review. We've been waiting a loooong time for this one. Personally, I'm about ready to see more Ballard on film. Bring on Natali's High Rise!


Cyberhal (12 years ago) Reply

me too, more Ballard the better. Nice review, though personall, not sure about men as mothers


Peralta (12 years ago) Reply

Although IMDB doesn't register nominations for the Portuguese Golden Globe Awards, Margarida Marinho received a nomination for Best Actress on this film. Really good review, congrats.


Dr Nathan (12 years ago) Reply

The thing about men being good mothers comes from Ballard -- he raised his three very young kids all by himself after their mother suddenly fell ill and died on a holiday trip to Spain in 1964.

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