Aliens are here. That’s the message Willem Koda (George Basil) would have us believe — the 360 viewers clicking on his YouTube channel’s posts. He’s an ex-geologist who rode a government contract until the unexplainable left him with nothing but emotional and psychological scarring, the type that broke him in pieces and irreversibly ended his career and marriage. Aliens were the culprits, the secretive work he engaged in deep beneath Nevada in underground tunnels an experience never to leave his consciousness. Life and love became secondary with a quest to expose the truth taking focus. He devoted his life to this mission, speaking at events to push his rhetoric onto the public and helping someone with similar viewpoints create a machine to eventually prove everything they believed was true.
When we meet Willem at the start of Michael Borowiec and Sam Marine‘s Man Underground, however, he’s merely a weird introvert starring past us into the emptiness of futility. He’s tired of being dismissed and ignored, watching his life evaporate as those he cared about disappear and leave him with his conspiratorially polarizing thoughts. Paranoia has taken hold and we’re unsure when it did. Does the past hold a key to expose the moment this well-adjusted scientist took a left turn? Or was he always so demanding, pedantic, and awkwardly abrasive? The only way to discover the answer is to mine his memory for his account. No one is interested in listening to his lectures, but perhaps they’ll open to his words within the context of a film.
The idea’s born from his one friend in this world, Todd (Andy Rocco). He’s the nephew of the man Willem used to help, a kinship forming through proximity, like-minded interests, and loneliness. After spending so many hours assisting Willem from an audio/visual standpoint — ripping VHS recordings so they can be uploaded online — Todd wonders if the time to spice things up with drama has arrived. The conspiracy theorist isn’t initially sold, but his meeting a new waitress at the diner he frequents as “the weird guy no one wants to serve” provides inspiration. Flossie Ferguson (Pamela Fila) is an aspiring actress, something Willem will need if he’s to tell the tale of his former life married to Tessa. The script is written overnight and soon after production begins.
What makes Borowiec and Marine’s film different is their refusal to thaw Willem into a “normal” human being. This isn’t about their main character readjusting his life by becoming something he so obviously is not. Man Underground is a story seeking to reveal who he is beyond appearances. It’s about our understanding what happened and the pain he feels. It’s about experiencing the laughter that pushed those he loved away to find the truth buried far beneath. His movie within the movie is made so he can take it to Washington DC, an action for which we only think we know the details. It’s actually his catharsis: a recollection of things that occurred to help approach a position of accepting whether continuing forward is worth the excruciating struggle.
We learn about Todd and Flossie in the process, their impact on Willem as important as his on them. He supplies Todd purpose with this film as well as an introduction to Flossie as a friend met and embraced beyond his extremely insular existence. She receives the same, an outlet to pursue her dream even if Willem is quick to emotionlessly remind her that wasn’t his reason for starting the film. He has very specific goals — goals we assume but never truly guess until the end — and to a point is using these two to reach them. Whereas Todd knows this side of his friend, however, Flossie does not. Willem can be very hurtful in his egotistical obliviousness, yearning for past and future while blind to the present.
Flossie’s boyfriend Francis (Felix Hagen having fun as a pretentious Big-Man-on-Campus-type who’s clueless to the nuance of relationships) is introduced as an exterior conflict point to open her eyes as well as Willem’s. For her his arrogant poking and prodding exposes his true self while Willem gets reminded of the opposition he’s faced his entire life. Francis signifies everything he hates about the world, an embodiment of those who have worked to suppress him. This patronization is what Willem has had to combat since that day in those tunnels changed everything; something Flossie never reduced herself to showing him. She only has empathy and compassion for her new friend, but like us doesn’t give much credence to his conspiracies. Maybe converting non-believers isn’t worth his time after all.
This is all intentional, a deflection to render us uncertain of Willem’s motivations and sanity. He’s colored as an endearingly strange character, one we’d embrace at a semi-arm’s length distance too knowing he’s genuine above everything. Does this make what he says believable? No. Not even Todd believes everything he spouts. But as their movie delves deeper into his history we soon discover how the wild accusations may not be so wild. Details are uncovered that align perfectly with Willem’s words and we wonder if there’s credence to them after all. Maybe if people saw it through his eyes — one person even (the perfect person) — the demons torturing him would finally cease. The truth has trapped Willem in a self-imposed prison for too long. It’s time to escape.
The journey is ultimately as sweetly funny as it’s emotionally tragic. We watch Todd and Flossie come into their own with awkward exchanges and jokes getting lost in translation before being accepted as the dry humor it is. There are glimpses of Willem warming too — unavoidable results of the warmth surrounding him after so long — but that level of comfort is difficult to receive and replaced by his steely intent as quickly as it arrives. Francis is the obvious comic relief, a villain we love to hate who isn’t villainous as much as self-centeredly ignorant, and he’s as three-dimensional as the rest while beholden to his specific identity. Rather than evolve, everyone here learns to embrace who they are. For some this freedom is a beginning, others an end.
Man Underground‘s screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival.