A UFO hunter who never speaks seeks answers to elusive questions near Nevada’s mysterious Area 51 in the existential drama-cum-sci-fi thriller-of-sorts “Dreamland.” A hypnotic, black-and-white work by Australian multihyphenate Ivan Sen, the pic approaches themes of identity, loss and obsession with storytelling technique from the outer limits. Mainstream acceptance is out of the question, but UFO nuts and dedicated arthouse buffs could turn this magnificently photographed and sound-designed mood-piece into a cult item. Substantial fest travels are assured following the pic’s world preem at Brisbane; international niches are possible, and local distribution is in the works.
Sen has worked in TV docus since his locally praised 2002 debut, “Beneath Clouds.” His sophomore feature takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1847 poem about a traveler haunted by dark memories in a place somewhere between heaven and earth.
In this “Dreamland,” the traveler is Dan Freeman (Daniel Roberts), a middle-aged loner who drives his pickup to what must be every famous UFO sighting hotspot along the (officially named) Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada. This stretch of road is the closest civilians can get to Area 51, the top-secret U.S. government base popularly known as Dreamland and believed by many conspiracy theorists to have been visited by aliens.
With the only distinct voice in the opening sections being that of an infrequently heard narrator who ruminates on facing fear and finding the truth “somewhere out there,” signs of a conventional plot prove as scarce as the aliens Dan is seeking. For viewers in sync with the pic’s highly unconventional rhythms, the space is filled by a tantalizing aural landscape that gradually surrounds the protag. Barely decipherable military-sounding communications and a swirl of radio broadcasts by religious zealots and self-help gurus are superbly arranged to create the sense that Dan is gazing as much inward as he is to the skies for answers.
That feeling is confirmed in the solitary scene with dialogue. At the halfway mark, Dan meets April (Tasma Walton), his estranged wife. In a drab motel room, she talks of putting her life back together and hopes he can find what he’s looking for. The decision to keep Dan completely silent is tested here; even those on the film’s rarefied wavelength may crave something in reply.
The second half gets really trippy. Dazzling time-lapse photography of the night sky and archival footage of space missions and nuclear tests are brought into play, hinting that Dan has a military background and may be mentally and physically affected by his involvement with Area 51. Roberts’ Everyman look makes it easy to imagine any number of possibilities regarding the central character’s past and his final destination.
Whether framing his solitary figure in ruggedly beautiful landscapes or hitting experimental-montage overdrive, Sen creates an atmosphere that inspires wonder about the universe and the place of human beings within it. His elegant steel guitar- and cello-based score completes an outstanding technical package; the audio at the screening caught was pre-final mix, and sounded stunning regardless. End credits include a list of every animal species to pass through the frame.