As a lone figure emerges from the distance of nothing but rolling hills of sand, a robotic female voice talks over the image, describing herself as the broken down companion of a traveling doctor named Lernert. As we’ve seen in too many sci-fi films before, Susan’s artificial existence is completely dependent upon her male creator, a lonely genius whose social capacity is seemingly limited to what he himself can create and control. As Lernert roams the emptiness of the desert with nothing but what he can carry on his back – including the robot herself, Susan, who’s reduced to nothing more than a head – a third character joins them and pushes the two in a different path, all in the form of an actual living, breathing young woman.
Set exclusively in the the desert, Everything Beautiful Is Far Away tells the story of a pair (or, uh, a trio) of misfit adventurers that bond over their respective existential crises, searching for life beyond the toxicity of the city. While the ideas are grand and the execution is perfectly pretty, Everything Beautiful Is Far Away is ultimately not nearly as profound as it wishes it were, held back and dulled down by its lofty pretenses.
Co-directed by Peter Ohs and Andrea Sisson, their debut feature focuses on the trio of characters as they attempt to survive in the isolation and heat of the desert, their resources limited to the “dirty, metallic muck” of water they retrieve from the depths of the ground and whatever plants they can so easily pull out of the sand. Initially, Lernert’s company is exclusive to his robot companion, only to wake up in the comfort of his camp to find a girl lying on her back and foaming at the mouth, seemingly succumbing to death from mistakenly eating a poisonous plant.
Fortunately for her, though, Lernert saves the day and sprinkles an antidote over her mouth. Thus, a perfect encapsulation of and an introduction to their contrasting personalities: she, a naive, yet intensely curious spirit, and he, a book smart yet socially awkward personality. Lernert’s only purpose, he says, is to survive. Rola, on the other hand, has different ideas – she plans to reach the mythical Crystal Lake, where the water is fresh and life is abundant, unlike in the merciless heat of the desert.
The thing is, Lernert (Joseph Cross, Big Little Lies) simply couldn’t be more insufferable. While he’s harmless on the surface and his intentions are good enough, he’s also whiny, authoritative, and quite frankly, incredibly uninteresting. Rola (Julia Garner, The Get Down), on the other hand, is perhaps the film’s biggest strength. She’s fiercely independent, but at the same time, she’s written to be childlike to the point of immaturity. Garner, thankfully, portrays the character with conviction and absolutely shines at it. It’s a damn shame, then, that Rola happens to Lernert, that she is only a part of his story.
Not to mention, there’s still Susan, a product of Lernert’s supposed genius. Due to a malfunction in her knee, Lernert was compelled to disassemble her body, leading her to reduction as a mere head. No longer can she walk alongside her creator like they supposedly loved to do, serving his every want and need. Throughout the film, Lernert carries her around like a keychain on his backpack, all as she periodically turns on and off, checking in on him like his mother. She’s the embodiment of Siri, nothing less and nothing more. Following in the footsteps of Ex Machina and Metropolis, the relationship between Lernert and Susan is yet another example of the male creator and female ownership, to the point where they must create the most idealized version according to how they see fit and how it best serves them.
Based on the the pastel-tinted perfection of the film, it’s clear that Ohs and Sisson are visual storytellers, displaying a keen eye for style, design, and framing. However, it’s the script that ultimately lacks in depth, no matter its valiant attempts to seem profound. As Lernert and Rola continue their journey to the lake, the story drags the longer it continues. While it is undoubtedly gorgeous, Everything Beautiful Is Far Away is ultimately much like its protagonist, Lernert – bogged down by its pretentiousness, and not nearly as interesting as it wishes it were.
Everything Beautiful Is Far Away premiered at Los Angeles Film Festival 2017.