Mexican science fiction. I don’t know much about if (if indeed there is much to know); the only experience I remember having with it is the 2008 movie Sleep Dealer, which is a nice little sci-fi gem with decent production values, although not enormously exciting. Then along comes By Day and By Night, which is about over-population. And one has to admit that if any country (besides China, Japan and India) would worry about such a thing, it would be Mexico, what with the overflowing population of Mexico City and the giant problems that comes with such a development.
By Day and By Night is a dystopian meditation on a future society in which all passion and emotion have been nearly/officially eradicated (gah! Another one of those), and where the totalitarian Leadership has implemented a chemically forced double-shift so that half the population is awake by day and the other half is awake by night, and never the twain shall meet. The plot revolves around a day-shift mother whose circa seven year-old daughter is mysteriously transferred to the night shift, so that they can never see each other. Very fortunately, the daughter is illicitly adopted by a guy to whom the same thing happened, because he is the son of the scientist who created the enzyme that enforces the respective shifts. This scientist, who is shown in two kinds of scenes, one of which may be a flashback (it is sadly unclear), is critical of the emotionless system, and is apparently trying to get his son, the girl and her mother out of it, to live in the Outside. Allegedly, the shift enzymes are supposed to turn poisonous on the Outside, but this is not really addressed in detail.
The mother, Aurora, and the guy, Urbano, coordinate their escape by leaving messages for each other, in the process falling in love. However, the scientist father seems to have become loyal to the Leadership again, and all their activity is monitored. So, does the little family end up getting caught or do they somehow achieve their freedom? The movie gives a kind of answer, but not an entirely satisfying one.
Sadly, there are many problems with the movie. It is probably intentional that it reads much like a mix of Equilibrium and Ladyhawke (!), with rebelling passion in an emotionless society, and the protagonists not being able to be together because one is only awake by night and the other only by day, but besides this the movie’s creators do not seem to be well-versed in science fiction.
Firstly, the setting is poorly explained. We discover only after Aurora has shown obvious concern for her daughter that the entire parental dynamics are completely different in this society; there are no fathers and mothers but only “guardians”, and they are not supposed to show affection, nor indeed any emotion. We are shown that there is opposition to this system (since it is not completely effective), but the system that they are rebelling against, to bring it back to something more like our own real world, is never described in enough detail for the audience to understand exactly what is being rebelled against.
Secondly, the plot is extremely muddled. The scientist father changes his allegiance (although we of course suspect that he is faking it), and the strange scenes where he is making entries in a diary are deeply confusing, partly because that character may be supposed to be a different one, called Dr. Prol, but played by the same actor, and partly because he is writing just before and after the implementation of the New Order, which is not specified. It seems most likely that it refers to the New Order of the shifts, but that happened something like a half-century before the main action and the guy is still the same age. Or perhaps the New Order he refers to is a post-shift order that our protagonist family is the beginning of? This is very unclear.
Thirdly, the science doesn’t make sense. I can accept that an artificial enzyme can enforce a day shift/night shift metabolism, but many details about it (incl. how to circumvent it) are not satisfactorily explained, esp. towards the end.
The single worst thing about this movie, however, is that it moves painfully, painfully slowly. Seriously, you doze off. In that regard it has much in common with many European movies which also, for some inscrutable reason, consider it artistic and sensitive to move the plot forward at a rate where continental drift seems more brisk. This is often a counter-reaction to American movies, but, it also gives the impression of obsolete styles of movie-making where very little happens. And to be honest, I hate it when very little happens.
Then there’s the question of the symbolism. Off hand, it seems to say (along with all other stories about futures without human passion, emotion and sex) that it would be bad if something like that happened, and let’s make sure that everything stays just the way it is in today’s real world. In other words, a cautionary tale about something which is very unlikely to happen, and with the message that what we already have in the real world is pretty much ideal and perfect. This amounts to a centrist or conservative defense of the current-day status quo which I, as a science fiction enthusiast, have very little interest in or sympathy for.
On the other hand, in some stories of this type (like Dark City, for instance), the depicted dystopia symbolizes the real world of today, while the reawakening of passion and emotion and other powers of the mind symbolize a higher and progressive level of human unity, happiness and civilization. So which one of these is By Day and By Night? I can’t tell, because it isn’t told well enough to be clear. I wouldn’t be surprised if the director doesn’t even have a clear opinion about this, because such clarity is certainly never conveyed to the audience.
It’s a great shame that so much of the story and message are so impenetrable, because the actors are good and the low-budget production values are very nice. But it simply isn’t a good science fiction movie.
Director: Alejandro Molina
Cast: Sandra Echeverria, Fernando Becerril, Juan Carlos Colombo,Manuel Balbi, Ari Brickman, Gala Montes de Oca
Runtime: 90 min.