Film Review: ‘Away’

Realizing that Latvian talent Gints Zilbalodis imagined and animated this survival story entirely on his own helps one to appreciate its rough but surreal style.

Subliminal Projects

An inspirational work of do-it-yourself computer animation that suggests the sky’s-the-limit potential of the medium for anyone with big ideas and a boundless amount of time on his hands (plus access to Maya or an equivalent CG super-tool), “Away” represents more than three years of imagination and labor by 25-year-old Latvian prodigy Gints Zilbalodis, who earns every aspect of his “a film by” credit: He conceived, designed, animated and scored — and what a score! — this hypnotic hero’s journey, which treats Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as a kind of waking dream.

“Away” opens with its young protagonist dangling by his parachute from a tree in an otherwise barren landscape, which turns out to be the remote end of a primordial island where physics follows a slightly different set of rules. We don’t know how this kid got there or where he’s going, but the giant black colossus lumbering toward him spells trouble. A moment later, the shadowy creature reaches for the boy and swallows him whole, but only for a moment, initiating a surreal, slow-motion chase that spans the next hour and 10 minutes — a wordless quest in which both the audience and our hero must first get their bearings, then find their way back to civilization.

Consistent across five prior shorts, including similar-themed survival tale “Priorities,” Zilbalodis’ now-signature visual style is simple but eye-catching, eschewing the hard lines of hand-drawn animation as well as the hyperrealistic 3D shading of other CG toons. For many, it will remind them of the rudimentary on-the-fly rendering style of early-21st-century video games, in which environments are stripped down to basic shapes and palette, enabling players to explore in real time. We never see directly through the boy’s eyes, but we do spend a lot of time looking at him looking at this unfamiliar world.

The surrounding terrain can be absolutely stunning at times, especially when viewed at a distance. By contrast, the boy’s face is an inexpressive pink expanse, barely accentuated by his ever-so-slightly rosy nose and ears and floppy brown hair, the bangs of which tickle his forehead like chocolate Cheetos, or loose, leather-gloved fingers. More detail might have been nice, but it isn’t necessary. Even though the character doesn’t speak, we can get a pretty good idea of what he might be thinking from the various clues on offer: a flashback to the plane crash of which he was the sole survivor; a backpack containing a map, a canteen and an auto key of some kind; and Zilbalodis’ lovely, low-key score, which alternates between tones of anxiety and exhilaration.

Like the graphics, the map suggests something one might encounter in an old-school video game, depicting a trail of archways across the island, on the other side of which there appears to be a port. The first arch shows the shadow of the colossus — which isn’t necessarily as malevolent as we first imagined but is somehow linked to the souls lost during the plane crash, and the concept of death in general.

These days, the line between VFX-driven cinema and video games has blurred enough that watching certain adventure movies can feel like being a passive spectator while someone else navigates a series of checkpoints or levels. “Away” is structured in much the same way, divided into chapters — like “Forbidden Oasis” and “Mirror Lake” — that feel ideally suited for a virtual-reality experience.

The main character interacts with different animals along his route, including a vulnerable yellow bird whom he must protect at times, whereas at others, it seems to be the one looking out for him. There are small puzzles to be solved — the key operates a motorcycle, for example — and semi-intuitive actions to be worked out, as in a watering hole surrounded by dozing cats.

For those with the opportunity to see “Away” in a theater, the experience will either mesmerize or annoy, as the project feels like a promising first pass — a rough-rendered showcase of Zilbalodis’ myriad gifts, which are better suited to world-building and scenic design than character animation. There are shots in “Away” that swoop through space so dramatically they recall the awesome “Circle of Life” montage that opens Disney’s original “The Lion King,” and the motorcycle ride across Mirror Lake is as beautiful as anything seen in this year’s photoreal remake of same. In live action, even drones can’t achieve the same effect as “Away’s” gravity-defying virtual camera, although the film’s nearly expressionless lead character is no substitute for the human face. At the risk of boxing in a talent capable of pulling off such a project by himself, one can’t help imagining what Zilbalodis might do with a team of collaborators — and in particular, the aid of a professional screenwriter.

Film Review: ‘Away’

Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival, Nov. 4, 2019. (Also in Annecy Film Festival.) Running time: 75 MIN.

  • Production: (Animated – Latvia) A Subliminal Projects release of a Bilibaba production, with the support of State Culture Capital Foundation. (Int'l sales: Cinema Management Group, Paris.) Producer: Gints Zilbalodis.
  • Crew: Director, writer, editor, music: Gints Zilbalodis. Camera (color, widescreen).