After all of the earth’s ice melts and calamity covers the planet, humans must take shelter deep beneath the surface of the ocean, condemning them to a severely circumscribed life.
But a device — like a virtual reality machine — conjures up the lost world outside for the underwater inhabitants, allowing them a glimpse of freedom.
Two friends, Clara and David, plot to escape, hoping to leave their underworld world for a better one up above the surface. But the long journey to the unknown is full of treacheries they never anticipated.
Co-directors Mark Pallisgaard Hansen and Mikkel Tengvad’s short sci-fi drama explores thematic territory that isn’t new for the genre, but its take on humanity’s perpetual quest for longing, liberation and free will has a particularly meditative and philosophical bent, thanks to its mix of formal bravura and crystalline visual beauty.
Rather than opting for traditional action and dialogue, this dystopian story is told in a series of beautifully evocative still images. The story’s events are related through poetic sound design and voiceover, in a narrative that is actually quite dramatic and powerfully apocalyptic.
The form clearly owes a debt to classic sci-fi film short “La Jetee” by French filmmaker Chris Marker, which used still images, voiceover and sounds to explore the nature of memory and emotion. But in this particular short, the tension of frozen images and the spoken narrative give the sense of an airless, static world where nothing truly happens or flows.
The two characters are stuck underground in tunnels, where there is no sense of “world” outside and no connection to nature or time. A feeling of unreality permeates those occupying this world, and as a result, they thirst for any sense of a bigger outside realm, even if it’s just a glimpse of a cloud or sky.
The great creative irony is that the story itself is quite dramatic, full of epic world-building, seductions and even murder. Taken on simply the plot level, the narrative could be taken as a feature thriller. But when related primarily through a voiceover, the story creates a sense of distance and melancholy that elicits more complicated thoughts and reflections.
As we look down on them from this narrative distance, the characters of “Beneath the Surface” feel like specimens in a petri dish, condemned never to escape. Their attempts may feel heroic and life-changing to them, but told through the studied tones of the voiceover, which range from wry amusement to ironic sympathy, we realize all long how pitiful these endeavors to fulfill longing are. Are all attempts to taste paradise — and escape from the drab prisons of reality around us — condemned to futility? The question is unanswerable, but simply posing it creates an uneasiness that is not quickly shaken off, even after the last frame has faded out.