In the opening scene of Chino Moya’s grimmer-than-Grimm dystopian fairy-tale collection, “Undergods,” a pair of grungy near-future garbagemen scour the ruins of a ghostly former metropolis looking for bodies. Like the Black Plague cleanup crew in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — the occasionally too-efficient “bring out your dead!” guys — it doesn’t matter whether the corpses they come across are even fully deceased: The collectors toss the bodies into the back of their cart either way. Should the poor souls turn out to still be alive, they can always sell them for precious cans of scarce food back at the depot.
Moya’s vision may be bleak — and “vision” is the right word to describe the Spanish-born director’s stunning capacity to create images and atmosphere — but there’s something unnervingly familiar about the world he creates in his feature debut. Between that twisted introductory vignette and the three uniquely cynical episodes that follow, “Undergods” displays a sense of humor so dour that the movie can’t rightly call itself a dark comedy. “Horror” would be more appropriate, even though its maker clearly intends this “Twilight Zone”-adjacent collection as a form of bleak social satire, one that looks like a cross between Franz Kafka and the Orwellian “1984” Apple commercial directed by Ridley Scott.
No wonder Scott connected with the film, coming on as an executive producer of a project that could conceivably take place in another corner of the future world he once imagined (and whose English-speaking ensemble hails from all over the world, cast for the forlorn, chiseled look of their faces). If “Blade Runner” depicted culture advancing in one direction, toward flying cars and neon skyscrapers, then “Undergods” spins the globe in the opposite direction — to a place where technology has stalled and all that remains is the elephant graveyard of a once-idealist industrial city.
The two corpse collectors (Johann Myers and Géza Röhrig) begin the journey by talking about their dreams — not happy dreams, but the kind that continue to haunt you hours after waking. As K shares his latest nightmare, Moya cuts from a fly-infested pile of bodies to an extreme close-up of a sludge-like stew in a couple’s kitchen. The set suggests an Edward Hopper painting, as harsh overhead lighting casts shadows into the actors’ eye sockets. A man (Michael Gould) and his wife (Hayley Carmichael) are having dinner when a kindly seeming stranger (Ned Dennehy) buzzes. He says he has locked himself out and asks to stay the night. Then he proceeds to make himself at home — which is to say, he adjusts the apartment to his own tastes, seduces the wife and so on.
The dream does not end happily, if it was even a dream to begin with. Moya interweaves his three tales in such a way that it’s not always clear where reality is meant to leave off. That’s because the stories take place in a world more recognizably our own than the one suggested by the film’s dreary, “Delicatessen”-esque framing device, where Vangelis-style synth music underscores the surrealism and Soylent Green is on the menu. Each of the three chapters plays like a downbeat parable, but instead of lingering on the final sad-trombone twist — the fatalistic “wah wah” of life’s inevitable unfairness — “Undergods” just moves along to its next set of victims.
Side characters from the first segment introduce the second, as a girl asks her father (Khalid Abdalla) for a different bedtime story and receives in return a not-at-all child-appropriate fable about a businessman (Eric Godon) who attempts to steal the blueprints for a device almost certain to make him rich, only to have the inventor (Jan Bijvoet) retaliate in kind. This yarn is familiar enough to have been recycled from Aesop or some medieval text, though the visuals place it in the same vaguely Soviet realm as the rest of Moya’s movie. Just when it seems to be reaching its climax — as the man and his would-be son-in-law (Tadhg Murphy) fumble their way through the dark — the characters tumble into the clutches of K and Z.
Audiences may not even realize that chapter has ended when the next begins, since the two seem to overlap in a gulag-like prison where a man named Sam (Sam Louwyck) has been eating gruel and sleeping on cold cement floors for 15 years. And then one day, he shows up in the living room of his former wife (Kate Dickie), who has since remarried to a sad-sack company man (Adrian Rawlins). Sam’s return instantly destabilizes the household, much as the stranger’s arrival did in the first story. In fact, the two situations are so similar, it’s not clear why Moya felt compelled to include them both. But even if he’s taken us down this road before, the execution is unpredictable enough to keep things interesting.
Once all the episodes have played out, there’s a disconcerting yet clearly intentional sameness to the film’s various parts. Coming at the same themes from different angles, the three lessons serve to upend the comfort and perceived control that fathers, husbands and First World patriarchs have traditionally enjoyed. Moya doesn’t specify when his movie is set — as in the films of Terry Gilliam, this future is cobbled together from discarded parts of our past — and yet the politics of “Undergods” directly relate to the power shift at play in the world today. It preys on the anxieties of those least willing to relinquish their position, while celebrating those who’ve been crushed beneath their heels for so long. In Moya’s imagining, the underdog is elevated to hero, while the gods who’ve controlled them for centuries are toppled like so many Soviet statues.