Review of Man Divided (2017)

Moving picture, 87 minutes

Seen in 2020.

A man announces, in 2095, that time travel has been banned. He then uses time travel to retrieve a piece of genetic code from the work of a fringe scientist. She was right about a coming, slow disaster: Climate change, rising seas, a freshwater crisis, and resulting ecological holocaust. She was doing genetic engineering to prepare when she died in 2017.

At the half-way point, the political and cultural elite of a dying future Denmark is at a party. The action pauses for a moment as Mette Lindberg gives a live performance of “Tainted Love”. She looks and sounds like a knock-off of Nina Persson and Björk. A single tear rolls down the main character’s cheek. The moment is peak Europe: Stylized temps mort in a world of hollow affluence and useless refinement, the symbolic transposition of a fading empire’s agonies onto the Earth.

Man Divided, a.k.a. QEDA, is a Scandinavian co-production, and admirably serious in tone. It combines the 2015 refugee crisis and the decade’s increasing public awareness of climate change with a rich heritage of science fiction, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the main character has a tattoo of a dog; they’re extinct) and Twelve Monkeys (the agent sent back to the viewer’s present, to help his own time, loses himself in its pleasures and goes a bit nuts). It reminds me of von Trier’s The Element of Crime (1984).

Director Max Kestner, previously known for his documentaries, had neither von Trier’s nor Terry Gilliam’s boldness, but he had a budget of 21 million DKK. He made the right choice and spent some of that money illustrating the future, including both a couple of wide shots and digital effects work for the process of time travel, establishing a “tunnel” in open water. It’s subtle and it looks good. The music, or lack of it, is also good; not Hollywood’s concurring schmaltz. Incidentally, the effects show that Kestner was less afraid of the label of science fiction than most European directors who’ve made movies like this over the years. Aside from the party scene, he does not retreat to arthouse stereotypes to save face. The future gets most of the screen time, and it is not reduced to a spectacle, as it was in Webmaster (1998), perhaps the most prominent Danish SF of the previous 20 years. In an interview for Soundvenue, Kestner described The Fifth Element (1997) as SF cinema ruined by money:

Det er et overflødighedshorn, hvor intet virker nødvendigt, og alt er der, fordi det var der én, som havde lyst til den pågældende dag.

It’s a cornucopia; nothing in it seems necessary and it’s all there because somebody just felt like it at the time.

He prefers Moon (2009), but he managed to outdo Moon by foregoing its claustrophobia. Alas, it was not by writing a better script. Man Divided is an example of substance over style in SF, but all the substance lies in concern for systemic problems, dramaturgy and a metaphor for ambivalent inaction in the face of environmental problems. The science is poor. As with the virus in Twelve Monkeys, the reason why Rung has to travel does not really make sense; simply replicating the original genetic engineering cannot be harder than inventing time travel and risking apocalypse by temporal paradox.

It is a premise that time travel can change the future, or at least invalidate and destroy it, but that’s not what Rung is trying to do. Like Cole, he seeks only knowledge. This premise was probably selected by analogy with the many-worlds hypothesis, since the method of time travel is itself based on an analogy with quantum entanglement: Two elementary particles seemingly allowing for communication where transmission isn’t possible. To travel, Rung first splits himself into two people who are telepathically connected. This is an analogy on the most superficial level only; it clearly violates physics to enable the metaphor. It adds a touch of originality, but I would have preferred more credibility.

moving picture fiction