Mankind is a down to earth drama, with its head tilted towards the stars.
At its core, the film is set within one room, as two men, Will and Evan (Ricky Nixon and Alexis Gregory), go through the motions of what appears to be a break up. Yet director Layke Anderson’s sci-fi marinated picture begins to peel away a series of fractured narrative layers, slowly pulling the rug out from under the audiences feet, as it emerges that this is no mere break up, but something altogether deeper.
There are ideas at play here, Anderson using the genre in the way that the best film makers of the past have. Soderberg’s Solaris feels particularly akin to Mankind’s sense that the science fiction element is a red herring. As it was with Soderbergh, Anderson’s film is about people and about choice.
Will has signed up for the first manned mission to Mars, having filled out the application, online and on a whim, only to find himself selected. The mission appeals to him, as he has grown weary of prejudices on his home planet, and wants to create a fresh start, one free of constraints, feeling they’ve been “standing still for too long.”
Evan, however, is the last to know.
And given humanity’s built in flaws, is Will’s dream even a realistic enough expectation?
The dialogue within the screenplay (penned by Anderson with Ryan Child) is laced with double meaning. The two lovers’ back and forth wouldn’t seem out of place in any domestic drama, and yet they cleverly subvert the context. Will isn’t leaving Evan for another person, but another planet: perhaps the most definitive goodbye there can be.
It goes deeper still, Anderson’s use of the sci-fi aesthetic freeing his scope so that he can explore a number of psychological and emotional issues, the kind that just wouldn’t come up otherwise.
What does it mean to love? Is Will escaping a relationship, or the still ever present ignorance of humanity towards sexuality that doesn’t conform? There’s a sensuality at play here too, with the male body, sweaty and uninhibited, providing an erotic counterpoint to the breakdown in communications taking place between these two young lovers.
Nixon and Gregory are a wonderful match onscreen, conveying a genuine sense of a relationship in free fall, with Gregory in particular given the lions share of the emotional spectrum, seemingly going through all five stages of grief over the course of the film, while Nixon conveys the majority of his inner turmoil with his eyes, at times looking like a naïve child.
What is most apparent here, though, is that Anderson grows stronger as a visual stylist with each film, utilising the immense talents of all of his collaborators (and cinematographer Alejandro Sesma is no exception), yet never falls prey to style over substance, each film’s tone and palette serving its subject, allowing for emotional engagement rather than cheap theatrics.
His editing is sublime, making the whole endeavour feel like brief glimpses of memory, aided by his eye for a contemporary design (the use of modern architecture giving the film a futuristic sense of scale in much the same way as Michael Winterbottom did with Code 46), not to mention Chris Weeks and Theo Bedoucha’s mesmerising music selections and some canny use of voice over.
Memory is a deeply human trait, intricately connected to our emotional register. Will, whose name is apt, chooses not to be a slave to his, a man able to sacrifice his past for what he feels is a more optimistic future. Evan, meanwhile, is less convinced, unable to accept that he could be losing his lover to science or time. From where he stands, Will is nothing more than a coward, running away from reality, like every other ex in his life.
“Earths gift to the Universe is life,” states Will, “We have no place in this world.”
And so it is, the film is framed by two beautiful effects shots: the first of Earth, and the last of Mars, creating a narrative bridge that also serves as ambiguous.
The universe may be vast, but Mankind’s pain travels with us.
That Anderson can say so much, so subtly, in so short a space of time is proof, once again, that he is one of the most interesting film makers working today.
DIRECTOR: Layke Anderson
STARS: Ricky Nixon, Alexis Gregory
RUNTIME: 13 mins
Mankind screens in Brighton on July 28th at Shorts Out! Brighton’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Tickets : https://www.wegottickets.com/event/476608