Jane is trapped in a parallel universe and is forced to find a way to alter her reality before it is too late.
After a year on pause, it turns out a life of endless possibilities might not be so great after all.
A chilling story about the expansion of human life, created during a time when we were forced to retreat, Infinitum: Subject Unknown introduces a heroine trying to navigate her way around a world that looks the same but doesn’t operate the way it should. It’s a world of endless repetitive days, an isolated home life and empty streets, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, she’s collateral damage for a greater good. Sound familiar?
My first movie-related thought when Lockdown 1.0 was imposed a year ago – apart from a desperate desire to watch Contagion – was how filmmakers, particularly indie filmmakers, might make the most of our government-imposed isolation, and the empty roads that resulted.
Surely some enterprising horror nut would already be planning a post-apocalyptic drama with a Cillian Murphy-type character emerging from a London hospital to unnervingly empty streets, a few doom-laden newspapers fluttering in the wind?
So far the zombie flicks haven’t appeared – maybe with countries battling anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories that is simply too on-the-nose – though Lockdown-related films have begun to emerge, some to acclaim and some to accusations of not reading the room, not unlike us as we slowly step outside, society asking whether we are really obeying the spirit of lockdown even if we’re sticking to the letter of the law.
The Michael Bay-produced Songbird, Anne Hathaway’s London-centered diamond heist movie Locked Down, and Zoom horrors Host and the live-performed In The Shadow It Waits have acknowledged to varying degrees the isolation, terror of being shut in and the pandemic’s unequal effects on the rich and the poor.
The cleverer ones utilise “new normal” filming and lockdown protocols to make the kinds of movies that would have been impossible before, and Infinitum: Subject Unknown fits that mould.
Co-written by Matt and Tori Butler-Hart, and filmed on an iPhone by Matt – with Tori as star – during lockdown, Infinitum: Subject Unknown gets out into England’s empty streets and quiet country roads, though it starts off in isolation and confusion.
Jane (Tori Butler-Hart) wakes up tied to a chair in an attic room in suburbia, and it’s clear she’s under surveillance. Outside, boring days are broken up with shouting and gunshots under cover of darkness. Soon the room, and that house, is the enemy, while she searches for clues as to who she is.
She frees herself, and starts looking for a way out; there’s a particularly chilling scene as she tries to escape down a secret staircase. That’s just the first of her challenges, in a film that reminded me of a computer game, with Jane trying to get to the next level. One mistake sends her back to the start while a tiny change opens a door.
Eventually she finds paperwork relating to the Wytness Centre, a scientific institute in the countryside, but getting there is as frustrating and frightening as trying to get out of the house. The centre itself holds all the answers, but they are far from reassuring.
Identity and time collide for Jane, as time loops and parallel universes reflect back to us the repetition of a year spent treading water and our need to know what is happening outside our newly shrunken worlds (the grass is not always greener for those “outside”).
Tori Butler-Hart is an affecting heroine, taking us on her lonely journey as she tries to unlock the puzzle of her own existence. It’s an impressive and self-assured performance on which hangs almost all of the film (she reminds me of Carey Mulligan, and like Mulligan could play almost any age).
Lockdown and on-set social distancing provides an empty world that only adds to Jane’s befuddlement. What isolation has taught us, and the film highlights so well, is how much we need cues from other people, from watching their behaviour to unconsciously noting fleeting expressions on maskless faces.
Ian McKellen and Conleth Hill appear in cameos as scientists who know considerably more than Jane about what is going on, and occasionally she receives mysterious phone calls from another young woman. Her quest is broken up with changes in colour and tone, and sudden shocks as she moves from hunter to hunted. The sky has two moons, or is one Mars?
The scientists’ appearances stop Jane’s own struggles seeming too repetitive (ha!) “We are on the cusp of propelling evolution to a staggering new dimension,” announces McKellen’s Dr Charles Marland-White, in a compelling if brief performance. Marland-White’s lack of bombast – this is no megalomaniac scientist wanting to destroy the world, even if he destroys the worlds of some – makes him and his project all the more frightening.
Director and cinematographer Matthew Butler-Hart certainly maximises the confusion in Jane’s head amid the countryside – it’s a pretty but blank canvas, silently refusing to give up its secrets. The house she initially wakes up in is sinister in its ordinariness; Britain seems to be able to conjure up suburban dread in an instant, and Butler-Hart builds a crescendo of unease and anxiety where Jane’s fear of life on repeat is as frightening as what might happen to her if she breaks out. (The husband-and-wife team are experts at UK-based shivers, as their previous film, the period ghost story The Isle, showed.)
Without wanting to sound too much like me in a 1990s job interview, the film’s strengths are also its weaknesses, and vice versa. The story would have been much harder to film out of lockdown (would it even exist?) but it’s still a lot to hang on one person. A little more of McKellen, to break up Jane’s journey, would have been welcome. I came away with more questions than Quantum Mechanics For Dummies could possibly answer (with so many parallel worlds there is simply no excuse not to provide a sequel, Butler-Harts), and the middle act doesn’t have the oomph of the beginning and end.
It’s still an incredibly impressive accomplishment though, this (almost) no-budget thriller, a particularly British slice of sci-fi which makes the most of the frightening and peculiar world we have found ourselves in.
There is a bravely bone-chilling bleakness to Infinitum: Subject Unknown, a shock after a year that for the lucky (wealthy?) ones among us has been 12 months of cosiness, comfy sweatpants, and finally meeting the neighbours, albeit on WhatsApp. Maybe I’ll stay in after all?
Infinitum: Subject Unknown is out on digital in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand now, and on DVD on 26 April 2021. It’s due to be released in the US in the summer.