One of the wonderful things about sci-fi as a genre is that it allows such a wide range of stories to be told – it’s not just about bug eyed monsters, silver Lamé jumpsuits and space battles. Instead, it can be used as a way of framing ideas, giving a different backdrop against which it’s possible for you to present all kinds of tales, not just ones that conform to the norms that you might expect.
Sci-fi is often used as a way of delivering allegories, or as a prism through which to see many different aspects of the human condition, as well as social commentary. With After We Leave, writer and first-time director Aleem Hossain gives us a film where any sci-fi trappings are only lightly used, and at times it’s possible to almost forget that you aren’t watching a wholly conventional drama, which is a testament not only to just how strong the storytelling is, but also how accessible it feels to general audiences – nothing here to put off or alienate people who don’t like anything that could usually be considered science fiction.
We’re ‘twenty minutes into the future’, as we find a planet Earth that’s slowly dying, having been ecologically ravaged, getting to the point of no return. Large swathes of the United States are now considered as desert, and the economy has been tanking for years. 15% of the population has been sent offworld so far, with further flights departing regularly. Although supposedly a lottery, a disproportionate number of wealthy and educated members of society have so far been picked by the Office of Extraplanetary Emigration, leaving the less fortunate behind to try and fend for themselves.
Jack Chaney (Brian Silverman) has been away from Los Angeles for several years, but has now returned to try and find his estranged wife; they’ve been selected to leave the planet, but having received a couples visa, they can only fly together, and with fingerprint and DNA verification at the point of departure. Jack only has a few days to try and find her so that they can have a shot at a new life on another world, but his efforts to track her bring him back into the lives of people who he’s hurt or let down, and results in reopening old wounds.
It’s clear he’s done some things that he’s not proud of, but his efforts to locate his wife end up bringing him into the sights of Eric (Clay Wilcox), a former partner in crime and cohort, for whom there’s still an outstanding debt to be repaid. Despite his best efforts to turn over a new leaf, Jack ends up being unwillingly drawn back into Eric’s orbit for one last job. In exchange, Eric says he’ll tell Jack where he can find Vanessa (Amber Jaeger), so that they can they can take their places on the scheduled departure. However, it’s not as straightforward as it seems, and things start spiralling out of control for Jack.
Jack isn’t a lead who you can take to easily. While it’s clear that he’s trying to atone for his past mistakes, his various interactions with people he knew from before he fled L.A. show how much of a toxic effect he’s had on their lives. Hossain also illustrates the enormity of Jack’s quest and his place in the grand scheme of things by showing him at the start vividly contrasted against the vast and sprawling vista of the barren terrain just outside Los Angeles, as well as later on when he’s seen almost as a speck crossing a huge, empty parking lot. All of his actions slowly end up making things worse, until it appears that he’s virtually alienated everyone from his old life.
What’s interesting here is just what you don’t see – considering a lot of the movie revolves around the setup for a big heist, we aren’t actually shown the crime itself, almost as it it’s not really important when compared to the rest of the story; instead, we jump straight to the aftermath, when things haven’t gone quite as intended. It’s certainly a bold creative choice, and feels like the right move, as some things are best left to the imagination. The VFX are also sparingly used throughout the film, and we are only reminded it’s a vaguely futuristic setting when we briefly see a holographic sign at a gas station, or the Blade Runner-style skyscrapers on the L.A. skyline in the background of a wide shot. Other than that, you could almost forget that it’s not a purely conventional contemporary piece.
The tension ratchets up palpably during the latter part of the movie, particularly when it becomes evident things aren’t turning out according to plan, and it appears as though events are going to conspire against Jack to prevent him getting a happy ending. However, it’s never going to be as simple as that, and there are so many unexpected twists and turns that it actually becomes alternately exhilarating and exhausting. It builds up with a series of gut punches which land hard after already experiencing some stomach-knotting anxiety, and After We Leave manages to keep you guessing as to how things are ultimately going to turn out, right up until virtually the last shot.
Hossain’s debut feature was funded using Kickstarter, and despite having a sum of money raised which would barely cover the lunch bill on a Hollywood movie, this is a very polished looking release, and in no way shows its modest budget, with all the sparingly used visuals looking just as good as a mainstream feature. More of a crime movie or a neo noir tale at times than a sci-fi flick, After We Leave has big crossover appeal, and is most definitely worthy of the attention of anyone who likes good, solid drama.