Source: Image copyright: Chris Schwagga / SWAN Films

Visions of the future (A Review of Neptune Frost)

(In English) By Wilfred Okiche

American multidisciplinary artist Saul Williams turns his sights on feature length filmmaking with the decidedly unclassifiable Neptune Frost, a post-punk wild out adventure that is brimming with ideas and burns with the fire of its ambitions. 

Described for the purposes of ease and coherence as a sci-fi punk musical, Neptune Frost is a singular creation that melds its influences and distills them through the cluttered, zany minds of Williams and his partner and co-creator, the talented Anisia Uzeyman.

The film is the latest chapter in Williams’ multifaceted “MartyrLoserKing'' project, a thematic rejection of the idea of martyrdom in the quest for social justice. This project has, so far, accommodated three albums and a graphic novel. This is not to say that Neptune Frost is entirely of Williams’ own making. The film, awash with stunning visual imagery and ideas too major and disparate to be engaged conclusively in any single project, is as much Uzeyman as it is Williams. 

In addition to her co-directing duties, Uzeyman- also an actress and playwright- is responsible for the film’s spectacular visual design. She leaves her imprimatur pretty much in one of the earliest scenes, a stunning kinetic shot of a colorful figure wearing a wide brimmed satellite hat. This audacious opening only sets the tone for what is to come as Neptune Frost tumbles towards a rocky, frenetic non-climax, one that is ultimately hampered by the lack of refinement that makes it such a standout at the same time.

It is hard to provide a description of what exactly Neptune Frost is about, but it involves the separate journeys of two interesting and unlikely characters. The stunning hills of Burundi make for the setting of the unnamed Afrofuturist universe in which the film’s dreamlike, dystopian world is set. 

The titular Neptune (played by the duo of Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo “Bobo”) is an intersex technology hacker who is guided by magnetic pull to an outcast enclave where a group of rebel hackers gather to find safety and comradeship. Their journey is bound to collide with Matalusa’s (Bertrand Ninteretse “Kaya Free”), a miner whose world is upended by the loss of a loved one. The characters are just as likely to break out into tunes composed by Williams one moment, and crazy dreamscapes  designed by Uzeyman the next; such is the push and pull of their collaboration.

Technically, the flow of the film could be described as moving from Neptune to Matalusa and the conclave of hackers, but that is assuming that Williams and Uzeyman are interested in telling a linear narrative. 

The film bounces in a circular, nontraditional manner and in place of a distinct plot, lie several ideas about big tech, colonialism, structural inequality, slavery and the wealth of nations. Or in this case, the lack of it. The dialogue rolls off in clunky, free verse form, departing from literalism as much as Williams- who wrote the screenplay- can get away with as his characters verbally unload the several challenges facing their community. 

This community, of course, could be a stand-in for any African country ravaged by endemic corruption, police brutality or wars over resource control. 

Neptune Frost delivers an obvious challenge to audiences. It is the kind of film that will dare you to walk out on account of the abstractness of its presentation or sit still in thrall of the ravishing beauty of its visuals. Either reaction would be valid but instead of fleeing at the earliest signs of nonconformity, the ultimate beneficiaries will be those who are able to submit to the unique pull of Neptune Frost in the darkened hall of a proper theater.

Best appreciated on the biggest of screens, Neptune Frost demands some effort from its audience, challenging short attention spans with immersive visuals that demand full attention of all the senses- visual, aural, mental and more. In the post-Marvel entertainment world where audiences are practically fed every crumb and instructed on how to respond to every moment, it is refreshing to find a film that operates on its own unique frequency. 

Neptune Frost swings for the fences, misses but keeps swinging anyway. 

No better way to go.