It's 1952, and after a nuclear experiment gone away, the world around the site has become a wasteland. On a walk through the landscape mapping fallout, scientist John Nguyan discovers an egg, an "anomaly" that shouldn't have survived the blast.
John's boss then chooses John to be the test subject of a fallout shelter experiment, trapping him underground when the egg begins to hatch. In isolation, John's only companion is the strange yet endearing dragon-like creature that emerges. But when it starts growing, John's survival and career destabilize, to unexpected effect.
Written and directed by Arthur Veneema with a surprising amount of heart and humor, this quirky, nostalgic dark comedy short explores the idea of finding hope during even the most desolate times in unexpected places. The world-building and premise are undeniably dystopian, with a poisoned landscape featuring heavily in its visual imagination, and John's predicament is full of isolation and loneliness.
The film's striking visuals have a wide range, from the expansive vistas of its desert setting to the shadowy, cluttered claustrophobia of the fallout shelter. And often the sole figure in them is John, accompanied by the sound of foreboding static indicating unseen clouds of radioactivity and the slow development of what appears to be radiation sickness.
Yet it's not at all full of doom and dread. The score has a mordant cheerfulness, from the gentle atmospheric electronic melodies to the jaunty 50s pop. There's a cheeky sense of humor that pokes fun at official bureaucracy and honors the genre of old-fashioned monster films like "King Kong."
And when the egg hatches, the film tracks the affection that John has for the small creature, rendered in a design by artist Patrick Charles and brought to life by charming stop-motion animation and a chirruping, cooing sound design. Ultimately the tone is one of sweetness, especially via the sincere and sometimes befuddled regard that actor Brandon Ngo and the oddly cute little reptile have for one another. Ngo nimbly balances the quiet desolation of a forgotten, seemingly expendable man with the dry, almost deadpan humor and absurdism of the film. When pushed too far, he finally stands up for himself -- with the aid of the monster he helped nurture when survival for both seemed uncertain.
Finely crafted, engaging and bleakly witty, "The Atomic Spawn" masterfully balances tones and creative registers in a way that a Coen Brothers film fan would appreciate, though the narrative has a more gentle, rueful sweetness at its core that's appealing and fun. Ultimately, it is a story about how love and connection to even the most unexpected beings anchor us during tough times. Hope flourishes in strange ways and places. Nurtured with care and generosity, it gives John something to live for during the darkest of hours -- and offers unexpected dividends.