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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 11.27.12] New Zealand post apocalyptic scifi drama western

In any form of storytelling there's a fine line between saying too much and not saying enough. When done as well, the information is enough to world build and tell a story while leaving the audience wanting for more. The trick is balance; there needs to be an interesting enough human story that the audience is willing to forget that they don't know the details of the society. When the balance is tipped, the movie simply doesn't work.

Juliet Bergh and Jessica Charlton Existence has a fantastic premise. The story takes place in a futuristic world where the oceans have become toxic. Freya lives, or more accurately survives, on the coast with her husband, two children and her father-in-law. They're trapped behind an electrified fence which runs the length of hillside as far as the eye can see and is guarded by men on horses named Riders who speak a language that is hardly understandable. Freya is curious. She wants to know what's on the other side of the fence and she's willing to do almost anything to find out, including befriending a Rider who seems amicable to her advances.

Shot in New Zealand, Existence has the advantage of a gorgeous locale. From afar, the coastline is a beautiful and welcoming place when in reality it's a harsh and difficult environment. There's little game, few trees and little protection from the elements. Freya and her family live away from the wall in a small village which they inhabit alone. The Riders clearly know there are still people on the outside, they killed a group some time in recent memory, but a few stragglers still make their way to the fence, trying to find their way to the other side. These wildlings who seem incapable of living off the land are different from Freya and her family, most notably they carry some sort of tracking number. Or at least I assume it's a tracking number of some sort because the film never explains it.

This is the major problem with Existence: it provides many interesting concepts but fails to explain any of them. It's never clear why Freya and the Riders speak differently, why she and her family are being kept outside the fence (or are they inside?), who built the fence and why and perhaps most erroneously, what's on the other side. At one point, Freya does make her way across the barrier, allowed in by the Rider she befriends. She sees something which we can only assume is terrible as, in the next moment she's running wildly back towards the fence and furiously attempts to open the door. She even shoots at some unseen danger in the distance but we never find out what spooked her or what she saw.

In a movie that world builds successfully this would be considered a triumph but here it's an infuriating decision because Bergh and Charlton's script doesn't offer any answers, just questions upon questions. The fact that they choose not to show us what's on the other side, the one thing the central character has been working towards for the movie's entire run-time, feels like a slap in the face. The entire story revolves around Freya wanting to cross the fence; the drama that fills every moment of the movie stems from Freya's curiosity and the choice to not show what's there is a huge misstep.

Though it's an infuriating watch, Existence does have merit, it's beautiful, well paced and relative new-comer Loren Taylor is quite good as Freya, not to mention that co-writer/director Juliet Bergh is a talent to watch. Just be forewarned: you'll likely walk away from this shaking your head and with far more questions than answers.

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Northof285 (3 years ago) Reply

I agree! I also think they should have marked this as a science fiction film instead of a drama. It would have gotten much more attention in that niche. Very intersting back story could still be developed. A missed oppirtunity perhaps. I liked it regardless

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