Lin Xia is a scientist on the run. She has 24 hours to save the Earth and, guided by a mysterious benefactor, makes a run for a small island as the world collapses around her. The island is vital, not just to her mission but to her past, her love for astronaut Zhi Yuan and the future of everything…
Ren Chao Wang’s movie is 60 minutes long and in that time covers the singularity, Artificial Intelligence, predicting the future, global viral apocalypse, true love and the collision between popular science and necessary science. Amazingly, it gives each a surprising amount of exploration and screen time.
Using a combination of found footage style documentary techniques and talking heads, the movie focuses in on one woman as a lens to explore massive global changes through. It’s a quiet, intimate story that uses that scale to surprise you time and again with massive scale and impact. A city-wide blackout, the northern lights dancing above the streets is haunting. The opening, which shifts from ocean to stars to lead character Lin Xia dragging a dead man out of his car, is flat-out astonishing. There are four distinct gear shifts in the scene, each of which serves the plot, sets the movie up and sets the tone.
Better still, the film continually unpacks itself. As we flash between a dying Lin Xia trying to complete her mission and the past leading up to that moment we get several twists you never see coming. They all make perfect sense too and this feels like one of the most measured, well-crafted scripts SF movies have produced in a very long time.
XI Liao is on screen for pretty much the entire hour and the movie is carried on her shoulders. She’s a focused screen presence with natural authority who takes us through the full spectrum of Lin Xia’s emotions. The scientist is complicated, self-centred, selfless and brilliant in a way that feels unflashy and thoroughly earned. She’s more Ellie Arroway than Ellen Ripley and her quiet, calm, passionate performance holds the movie together.
Wong’s direction is great too, mixing handheld shots with natural locations and subtly worked special effects. This both is and isn’t our world, convincingly real and quietly fantastic. The script also impresses, especially the ending. Ambiguous in a way that still offers closure its reminiscent of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia albeit with noticeably more hope and space travel.
The End Of The Lonely Island isn’t perfect. Its pacing is a little too deliberate in the second act and there’s a distinct lack of urgency in places. But in the end that doesn’t matter. What does is that this is a fiercely ambitious film that achiever every single one of its seemingly impossible challenges. Much like its determined, steely heroine.
By reputation, Chinese science fiction cinema is best known for big-scale, set-piece, effects-heavy spectacle. But a new breed of filmmakers have come to focus on lower-budget, independent genre movies that prioritise high-concepts and immersive storytelling over monsters and explosions. In Ren Chao Wang’s debut feature The End of the Lonely Island, an exemplar of this new approach, the director crafts an enigmatic and captivating tale that unfolds in the dying days of planet Earth.
Opening with a downbeat, and colour de-saturated, sequence following scientist Lin Xia (Xi Liao) as she begins a race-against-time to reach an isolated island, following instructions provided by a disembodied voice in her earpiece. As the film flips back and forward in time, Xia recalls her previous trip to the island in the company of her lover Zhi Yuan (Duo Duo Tian). He was eager to join an interstellar space mission to the Centaurus planetary system, with the ‘Bi’an’ (“another shore”) project, and the Shenzhou 20 starship, overruling her objections. Back on the island many years after the launch, Xia is driven to complete a vital, final mission, before a black-clad SWAT team can hunt her down.
Over the course of the hour-long running time, Wang gradually fills in the blanks on his initially incomplete and disjointed storyline, including Xia’s work on the discredited TESS problem-solving AI and the events that appear to seal humanity’s fate on Earth, just as the Shenzhou spacecraft runs into trouble. For so brief a film, this comes with a meticulous and intricate plot.
Wang struggles to direct action scenes (the one fight sequence is clunky), but he has a sharp cinematographer’s eye, a confidence in handling non-linear storytelling, and is a clear adherent of the less-is-more school of oblique understatement. This is a movie infused with reflective melancholy. Wang’s script introduces a wide canvas of themes, including humanity’s perception of the risks of exploration, the place of Earth in the vast firmament of the universe, the essence of artificial intelligence, and the nature of fallibility and of culpability. There’s more going on here than can possibly be accommodated in an hour-long drama, but the sense of ambition is to be applauded and, despite the overcrowding of ideas, this still succeeds in being a movie of genuine substance.
Held together by a singularly, focused performance by Xi Liao as humanity’s steely, would-be saviour, The End of the Lonely Island is an exercise in extraordinary filmmaking, in every sense of the word.
THE END OF THE LONELY ISLAND / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENWRITER: REN CHAO WANG / STARRING: XI LIAO, DUO DUO TIAN, LEI LI, REN CHAO WANG / RELEASE DATE: UK RELEASE TBA
Sci-Fi London Film Festival: The End of Lonely Island – Review
“In the last 24 hours of saving the world, it’s the loneliness that will kill us first”
You know, there is a very little number of films that examine the loneliness that comes from being a human in a science fiction environment. I mean can you name any? In a world riddled with technology and the destruction of mankind, it certainly does seem like a rather lonely environment. Being left alone in such a situation definitely sends shivers don one’s spine.
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As part of Sci-Fi London, director James Wang’s hour long debut explores this providing us with an engaging and terrifying tale. What if a piece of technology was so smart, that it decided to take over? Better still, it was so far ahead, so superior that it didn’t even know that its actions were sinister – it was just doing what it thought was right.
Of course, this is a concept that has been previously explored in many a TV series and film, yet The End of Lonely Island takes you on its very own emotional journey with a sci-fi infusion. We are introduced to female scientist Lin Xia who seems to be taking on the biggest task of them all – saving the human race from extinction. Through a series of slick flashbacks we gain the knowledge that she invented an AI, called TESS far more evolved than she could have ever imagined. And it’s because of this she desperately tries to save everyone she can.
At first this beautifully secluded island seems full of warmth and adventure soon for it to be a place consumed emptiness and a place flooded with painful memories. However, it’s those thoughts that allow our strong female lead to strive and push through in order to do her best in such a crisis. The post-apocalyptic atmosphere alongside its dark tones and textures embody the sci-fi genre to a T. Lin’s desire to survive succumbs everything and above all else her love for her boyfriend, 4 years away somewhere in stars is what truly lies beneath this narrative. Their story is a touching one that transcends time and space as we hear Zhi’s voice from far away on a mission to start over on another planet. As we ourselves are quickly finding out the human race is single-handedly destroying our Earth as we know it and to take to the stars to find a more desirable home is a very real subject.
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Carefully placed CGI and effects give us just enough to chew on without overbearing the real story that resides at its heart. At times confusion takes hold as Wang decides to withhold certain facts and information about what truly happened here. Although perhaps if there was a short explanation or an additional scene this would have been a very impressive debut from an upcoming director. Ordinarily there are a few dud translations, but this is nevertheless entertaining and upon a second viewing much more accessible.
Maybe this is a message – don’t trust machines too much because they could be much more than we think they are.
Fifteen minutes into The End of the Lonely Island, I nearly gave up on the movie. I simply couldn't follow what was happening. A man and a woman are walking on a deserted island. He's telling her about his time spent there as a child and partway through his story, the movie flashes forward to the same woman on the same island but apparently years later. She's talking to someone in an earpiece and trying to find something on the island as quickly as possible but there's no indication of what she's looking for but more importantly, why she's in such a hurry to find it.
The two stories don't seem connected and what's more, there's no indication of why they're important. We know nothing about any of the characters and yet... there's something compelling about the story. In truth, the slim 60 minute running time is what kept me with it for most of the first act and boy am I glad I did.
Ren Chao Wang's feature film debut doesn't feel like the work of a first time filmmaker. Its scope is large, the story is dense with detail but perhaps most impressive is Wang's brilliant handle on how the story unfolds. The first 30 minutes of The End of the Lonely Island feel like a disconnected series of moments that are happening to the characters but almost exactly halfway in, Wang begins to weave the various stories together, filling gaps and eventually bringing the movie together into a satisfying conclusion.
Along the way, he poses some interesting ideas about AI, humanity's ability to survive, relationships, space travel and ultimately, explores the concept of how far one would go in order to save humanity. Any one of those ideas would be enough to sustain a movie but Wang manages to cram them all into an hour and it doesn't feel rushed.
Actress XI Liao is tasked with being our guide through the lofty ideas of the movie and she does a fantastic job of keeping the audience engaged; particularly in the opening act when so little of the story makes sense.
The End of the Lonely Island is a challenging watch. Wang throws around a lot of ideas and crams a lot of story into the movie (it also doesn't help that there are a lot of subtitles and in parts it's difficult to keep up with the dialogue) but the fact that it's so short also means it lends itself beautifully to repeat viewings and I found I liked it, even more, the second time around.
If Wang was making movies in the US, Hollywood would be knocking down his door. I expect it's only a matter of time before he steps up to bigger projects. I certainly can't wait to see what he does next.