Monday 22 March 2021

Through the wormhole: "Infinitum: Subject Unknown"

In a decade's time, once the last of the germs has been purged and Covid is no longer the dread word it now is, some leading institution is going to stage a retrospective of lockdown art, and what humankind did to get itself through the first major pandemic of the 21st century. The exhibition will chiefly be focused on the pre-eminent responses to the current crisis: the documentary
76 Days, Rob Savage's nifty, quick-off-the-mark Zoom horror Host, the first season of the Sheen/Tennant vehicle Staged (when it felt like the actors were genuinely in it alongside us), Nick Cave going solo at the Alexandra Palace, "McCartney III" (the curators will generously overlook how the ex-Beatle coined the phrase "rockdown" in a press release), Peter Duncan's Jack and the Beanstalk. A contextualising glance will have to be cast at all that middling lockdown endeavour, however - those shrugging Zoom revivals of beloved sitcoms, the many thousands of photos of homemade sourdough, Joe Wicks' 24-hour Workout for Comic Relief - and a room will be set aside, perhaps in the basement, with appropriate content warnings in place, for that which was genuinely ugly: Gal Gadot's "Imagine" video, tweets by Ian Brown, Lee Hurst and Right Said Fred, that Chiwetel Ejiofor-Anne Hathaway heist movie nobody seems to have gone for much. As those jokes circulating at the start of Lockdown 1 suggested, no-one has used this time - no-one has been of a mind to use this time - to compose anything comparable to King Lear, although an episode of Alexei Sayle's cherishable Lockdown Bike Rides (streamable on YouTube) did feature a weathered old soul huffing and puffing his way across Hampstead Heath. On that sliding scale, this week's lockdown-shot streaming release Infinitum: Subject Unknown ranks just north of halfway. Here's a playful, micro-budgeted yet cleverly structured puzzle picture that opens with a woman (Tori Butler-Hart, who co-wrote with her director husband Matthew) waking up tied to a chair in the attic of a house on a quiet Crouch End street, and thereafter spending the better part of 90 minutes attempting to figure out how on earth she got there.

Where Savage plumped for lockdown techno-horror, the Butler-Harts lean into sci-fi. It's soon established our heroine is either stuck between realities (a glitch in the space-time continuum sporadically transforms the view out the window into a Terminator-style warzone) or in a Groundhog Day/Timecrimes/Russian Doll-like timeloop. In each iteration, she nudges a little further down the garden path - literally, at first - only at a certain juncture to be returned, with a noise that sounds like a flashbulb popping, to that chair in the attic to begin her quest from scratch. Tempted away from their own sourdough, Ian McKellen and Conleth Hill pop up to provide gobbets of exposition that suggest all this is the endgame of some shady, top-secret experiment. (Their socially distanced participation gives rise to the quintessentially 2020 credit "Conleth Hill segment shot by... Conleth Hill".) For a while, Infinitum badly needs these venerable thesps as narrative crutches; without them in place to build up the stakes, we really would just be watching someone poking round an empty house. (There is, granted, an element of Through the Keyhole in the mix here: you find yourself admiring the defiantly retro wallpaper in the kitchen of the Butler-Harts' downstairs neighbour, and their enviable on-street parking.) Matters get more expansive once the protagonist finally figures a way out into the world: Madame Butler-Hart stumbles across someone to talk to (albeit another version of herself), and the finale plays out around a Jacobean abbey, a location at once imposing and quietly creepy. Though we get digitally enhanced shots of a London monitored by flying gunships, the film's most striking effects are wholly analogue, and of a kind that could only have been achieved amid the great shutdown of summer 2020. Shots of entirely abandoned parks, a vacant South Bank, and a brief glimpse of a desolate Wardour Street - destined to leave Soho media types feeling melancholy in the extreme - generate the kind of post-apocalyptic eeriness Danny Boyle and Fox paid top-dollar to achieve in 28 Days Later.... The speculative future of that movie becomes here and now in this one; as with Sayle's bike rides, this apparently off-the-cuff, seat-of-the-pants project will likely retain considerable documentary value if we manage to get ourselves out of this mess.

Infinitum: Subject Unknown is now available to rent via Prime Video.  

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