Algeria, 1960. France has just detonated its fourth atomic bomb in the middle of the Algerian desert. A team of seven young military recruits, along with a grizzled army captain, head out to the point of impact to conduct research: taking soil samples, measuring the radiation and other tasks.
The team is boisterous, young and full of life, though some members are watchful and cautious, and the older military veteran is world-weary and quiet. But as they reach point zero, they soon face the possibility of calamity for both the team and the atomic experiment in general.
Writer-director Loic Barche’s remarkable short drama — co-written with Marie Monge — mixes stunningly painterly visuals, touches of humor and documentary-style footage to capture a historical moment and question the notions of progress. This is a short that takes a wide lens, literally and figuratively, to reach for and achieve a remarkable creative ambition.
There is no pretense of naturalism in the film’s visual approach: the images themselves are nearly epic in their striking compositions and stunning cinematography. Emphasizing dramatic vistas and almost surreal angles, the visuals function on multiple levels: they emphasize the scale of the atomic energy itself, framing it often as an event of awe-striking modernity and almost mind-blowing technological achievement. But by dwarfing the human subjects within its often vast frames, the images also emphasize just how these people get lost in the scale of this historical moment.
Individual characters aren’t developed, but rather than short-changing expectations of narrative intimacy, the storytelling and writing emphasizes the idea that its group of soldiers is a microcosm of French society. Oscillating between humanizing (and often funny) moments within the group and the larger vistas they scuttle through as they conduct their research, the film portrays the post-colonial tensions that bubble up between them, as well as “true believers” in the mission of what they’re doing, underlined by occasional moments of festivity in the film and its soundtrack. The result is a remarkably wide-ranging collective portrait of a society poised to stride into a new age, though not without its baggage.
But in the guise of the older military captain, there is also great skepticism about the progress that atomic energy represents, as well as a symbol of a vanishing world and set of values. But it’s this set of values that takes courageous action — and ultimate sacrifice — when their great work suddenly faces peril, and the film shifts into great suspense and tension in its final movement.
“The Atomic Adventure” is based loosely on true events: France carried out about many nuclear energy tests in the 1960s, mostly in the former colonies of Algeria and French Polynesia. (These tests ended in 1996.) But despite the occasional documentary-style footage, this film isn’t meant to be a re-creation of reality.
Instead, “The Atomic Adventure” — a highly ironic title by the film’s end — reflects, with stellar craftsmanship and artistic bravura, an interrogation of the notion of progress itself. Taking place during a time of enormous economic growth in French history, the atomic cloud becomes a symbol of France’s aspirations and possible power. But as we observe the fate of the soldiers — and see how powerless and even meaningless they are in the face of what atomic energy can inflict — we can’t help but question a definition of progress that comes at such a high human cost. There are no easy answers here, just enormous questions whose shadows still make their presence felt even in the present.