Film Review: ‘Bokeh’

'Bokeh' Review: Apocalypse Remains Unexplained

Two American visitors to Iceland find themselves the apparent last people on Earth in a film that offers few answers.

“Last people on Earth” movies are practically a genre in themselves, having begun as a reaction to 1950s atom-bomb anxiety (“On the Beach,” “Five”), then remained a sporadic presence in all subsequent waves of screen sci-fi, including environmental and zombie apocalypses. “Bokeh” belongs to the category’s least populist corner, in which the catastrophic event itself is not depicted and/or left entirely mysterious, with the focus on the few survivors. and how they manage — or fail — to carry on after civilization’s end.

Movies of this stripe (like “Glen and Randa,” “The Quiet Earth” or, more recently, “The Road”) are bound to frustrate those anticipating any conventional fantasy thrills, while instead aiming to provide the abstract rewards of a speculative mood piece. That’s likely to be the reaction to “Bokeh,” which takes its name from the photographic term for blurry parts of a picture produced by variable lens focus.

Why that title? You might as well ask why the central figures here wake up one day to find themselves seemingly the last people on Earth; no answer will be forthcoming from this first feature from Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan. Light on plot and explanation, while not perhaps so deep as it would like to think itself on a philosophical plane, this minimalist drama is bound to induce a parting “What was that about?” shrug from many viewers. Nonetheless, they’ll be held to a degree by the film’s concept, confident execution, and use of beautiful Icelandic locations.

Iceland is the place that young American couple Jenai (Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O’Leary) have chosen for their vacation, which is also her first time abroad. At first they behave like any other tourists, seeing the sights in town, eating out, going on guided walks, etc. But one morning after Jenai witnesses some odd lights in the sky during the night, they exit their hotel to find no one around… anywhere. Cars have seemingly been abandoned in the streets; shops are unlocked but empty. At first they assume the populace has been drawn away by some holiday event, or an emergency evacuation. But then it turns out that even the folks back home aren’t answering their phones. TV stations have gone off air; the internet has remained stagnant since the prior evening. All human activity has apparently ceased, sans corpses or any other proof of disaster to explain it.

“At least we’re here together,” Riley says, and for a while they’re able to amuse themselves with hedonism and consumerism that no longer knows monetary bounds. (They’re spared immediate logistical hardships like failed electricity or heat, because Iceland’s energy systems are geothermal-powered — and while animal as well has human life seems gone, Mother Nature is otherwise carrying on as usual.) But Jenai longs for home and family. She can’t accept whatever has happened, or their own mysteriously survival, with no apparent purpose or meaning to it. (This will also be a likely issue for viewers.)

The co-directors’ screenplay is not high in incident, but it does move along briskly, taking advantage of picturesque settings inside and (increasingly) outside of Reykjavik, as our protagonists have a ready supply of vehicles, gas and time at their disposal. What the script does not do, rather oddly, is lend those protagonists much depth or personality, though the performers themselves are attractive and personable enough. Admittedly, the characters are still young. But surely they must have backgrounds, interests, and aspirations — none of which the film bothers to express. We never even glean how serious they’d be about each other if life still offered other  prospects.

Not unlike Burgess Meredith in the famous “Twilight Zone” episode where a voracious reader finds he’s got “all the time in the world” and an open library after humanity likewise vanishes — only to break his reading glasses — here, we’re stuck for eternity with two perfectly decent people who, it seems, just aren’t very interesting company. Not even for each other.

It’s notable that when the duo finds it might not be alone, after all — something that would invariably spell terror in a different kind of movie — the discovery offers scant comfort. The more interesting existential debate this triggers represents a direction too briefly taken to really deepen “Bokeh,” which in any case soon trundles on toward a less-than-satisfying fadeout, with all narrative mysteries left dangling.

The result is a “What if?” exercise that ultimately doesn’t take its starting premise to any place that’s terribly interesting. However, for at least as long as it appears to be heading somewhere, “Bokeh” holds attention with polish and resourcefulness on a limited budget. Joe Lindsay’s widescreen photography makes the most of the striking landscapes on hand, Orthwein’s editorial pace is unhurried yet lively, while Keegan DeWitt’s solo-piano-based score strikes appropriately plaintive, spectral notes.

Film Review: 'Bokeh'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 17, 2017. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production

(U.S.—Iceland) A Screen Media Films release (U.S.) of a Zealous Pictures production in association with Vintage Pictures and Verge Pictures. Producers: Doug Dalton, Kent Genzlinger, Briene Lermitte. Executive producers: Andrew Sullivan, Dirk Junge. Co-producers: Hlin Johannesdottir, Birgitta Bjornsdottir, Joe Shott, Liana Lehua, Christina Jennings, Harry Halloran Jr.

Crew

Directors, writers: Geoffrey Orthwein, Andrew Sullivan. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Joe Lindsay. Editor: Orthwein. Music, Keegan DeWitt.

With

Maika Monroe, Matt O’Leary, Arnar Jonsson, Gunnar Helgason. (English dialogue)

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  1. Elaine says:

    I was also a bit frustrated with this film, but I still enjoyed it. Yes, it wasn’t very realistic in depicting the kind of chaos and destruction that would happen if people suddenly vanished. It’s a movie, it doesn’t have to be 100% realistic-only set a climate to tell the story. For those who don’t see any point to it, may I offer my take? I think it was mostly a study of how people chose to react to a devistating situation. We see optimism and determination on one end, calm acceptance of the inevitable on the other. Then somewhere in the middle, someone who is distraught and fluctuating, who wants to hope but isnt brave enough to try. As far as developing the characters, I think the writers expect us to draw our own conclusions by the way they are reacting.

  2. Mike w says:

    A movie of 1st world whinners. Poor me. I have the love of my life in picturesque Iceland with all my wants and desires met. No zombies, monsters, destructive forces or paramilitary a-holes to deal with. Even the electricity, running water and Internet are still functional. Pleeease! What a self indulgent waste of time masquerading as a philosophical thought game of the meating of life.

  3. reana says:

    The editing could have been more polished. And Riley’s character broke my heart.

  4. Glenny says:

    I enjoyed the film.
    Perhaps a seismic event occurred that wiped out the world and what we are left with is his afterlife. My take is she did not exist but only a memory of his. As the movie went on her his memory of her started to fade as did her happiness. He accepted this place, that was not earth but as his next life. She did not because she was not really there. The images left to him on the kitchen table presumably by her were only of her and her only- meaning nothing of the Iceland. The last scene of him driving away was him moving on, leaving her behind as if to recognize she does not belong there.

  5. James Polk says:

    I think this movie was just the director’s excuse to get an all expense paid trip to Iceland. I would’ve done the same since I only watched it for the scenery. Dialogue was terrible.

  6. Phrogz says:

    This feels like a lazy review.

    (a) It’s easy to both imagine and confirm why the title “Bokeh” was used. From the Kickstarter page (the second hit on Google after this review): “Bokeh is the blur, the out of focus part of the photo. In life, we choose what we focus on and what we blur. Our film tells the story of two people who continue to change their priorities, their ideals, their focus based on their world disappearing. They are defined not just by what they focus on, but what they choose to blur.”

    (b) Animals did not disappear from the planet. Were you looking at your iPhone during the scenes where Jenai is with horses?

    (c) The “they might not be alone” part may have felt brief to the reviewer, but the impacts of that continued throughout the rest of the film, to the very end. In an attempt to give nothing away, let me just say, “red tape”.

    I personally enjoyed the film, and the reviewer apparently did not. That’s fine. But get the facts right if you’re going to pan a movie.

  7. Sean says:

    Is it that hard to not continually squander this premise? Iceland, while kind of just ok, felt like a cheat so the script didn’t have to address some of the more realistic questions that would arise about electricity or basic issues. Geothermal power grid. How convenient. I didn’t need high production value or even answers in a tight little bow. But the flat performances and embarrassing lines were harder to overlook. I have zero questions. I just did not care about any of it.

    The best thing I can say is that I am grateful they didn’t set me up or overhype any aspect of the film. It starts one way and ends on the same note. I wasn’t frustrated, excited, curious or challenged in any way.

    That said, I could not do a better job. But this is my favorite subject in the world and I can be entertained by just about any take on the idea of being the last person on Earth. This just did nothing for me.

  8. AJ says:

    This review was a very nice way of saying that the movie was terrible. With this concept, the incredible locations they had and the actors they had, I could have come up with something far more compelling. It was like an unremarkable photo of the idea behind the film, like the photos the protagonist takes throughout, and when the characters did converse, the dialogue was pretty terrible and the film ends up saying absolutely nothing. I’d be perfectly willing to accept a lack of answers about the circumstances (and a certain something that remains equally unexplained maybe a bit more than halfway through) if the film at least offered a coherent philosophical exploration. It’s really too bad that the film offers no substance because they had all the pieces to create something incredibly beautiful.

  9. Ivanka Trudeau says:

    What would happen to nuclear power plants without supervision? Thousands of planes in the sky? Billions of electrical appliances? Burning gas stoves? Within an hour of human extinction, the world will have been gone as well.

    • Lorli says:

      You’re absolutely right. It was that unbelievability that made me look away from the beauty of the film.

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