“Atlantis” is a mythology long lost, yet fascination with its deluge persists—if not merely as an archaeological epithet—in Valentyn Vasyanovych’s new film of the same name. This referent is multivalent: “Atlantis” also alludes to the Ukrainian national icon (a trident) adopted as the coat of arms in 1992 in the aftermath of independence against what remained of the Soviet Union. The 2014 Russia-Ukraine war is another lineage of this film’s atmosphere. Catalyzed by the “Euromaiden” protests, civilian crowds rioted against the Ukraine government for their perceived hesitancy in joining Europe, instead exhibiting leniency towards Russia. Although geopolitical and cultural intermediary, Vasyanovych’s Ukraine bears little resemblance to the civilizing project of either Europe or Russia, West or East—and is instead positioned between redemption and collapse.
At the end of another Russia-Ukraine war, a speculative decade after 2014, Vasyanovych’s Atlantis brings no resolution to the conclusion of conflict. In the ruins of a near-future 2025, Ukraine hedges a victory, but there is nearly nothing that indicates peace. Though war is over, its remnants linger in subject and object formation. The few subjects we encounter are frequently diminished by the breakdown of constructs both natural and artificial; bibliographic and historical context is discarded for vast impressionist landscapes where only geopolitical catastrophe is a valid explanation.
The film begins as Ukraine’s wartime economy wanes: industrial factories close, wartime skills expire, and workers migrate elsewhere as a shell-shocked Ukraine attempts to jumpstart its post-military future. But this leap forward comes with occupational hazards. We’re introduced to a crew of industrial workers, of various ages, resiliently optimistic about the role of a steel foundry in the future of Ukraine. Yet displaced optimism proves a recurring theme. Within a few scenes, the plant manager—who speaks, in English, of “new opportunities that come with new technologies” in front of an early Soviet montage film dedicated to proletarian labor—informs hundreds of employees of this steel foundry’s imminent closure. As workers debate Ukraine’s next “reconstruction” phase, others discuss pillaging scrap metal from a collapsed bridge in Crimea as “Ostalgia” thoroughly dissipates.
It soon becomes obvious that while, for some, assimilation is the natural progression of Ukraine, others’ acclimation to peace is not as simple as ceremonial concrete that both paves the future and disavows the past. In Atlantis’ sixth scene (there are only around 30 in total), a foundry worker opts for self-immolation, his body immediately disintegrating to steam as he dives into a molten vessel and is submerged by metallurgic excess.
After these initial sequences, there are no scenes of industrial utility. Instead Atlantis is replete with one character’s passive attempt to resuscitate war-torn Ukraine. Atlantis follows Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk)—a scarred, yielding Ukrainian exmilitary trained for a conflict expired. But Sergiy’s life under peace is latent with trauma, his narration oscillating between mute melancholy and serene rapture. Early reviews and publicity on Atlantis have emphasized the main character’s PSTD. But trauma is multiple in Ukraine 2025—deeply nested within the lithosphere and manifest on its exposed crust. Sergiy is our guide (not unlike other allegorical guides of the underworld) to deserted cities, bombed-out outlines of civilization and wastelands of once-functional human sites. Where a traumatized subject is often prone to convalescence and hysteria, Sergiy is somewhere between a desert nomad and a 16th-century quietist.
Sergiy’s post-war (and post-industry) job is as a bi-monthly contract worker transporting clean water between military checkpoints, as we are told in a scene prior that “the rivers are full of salt.” In Chernobyl-esque detritus, environmental catastrophe comes from above as much as it breathes below: Vasyanovych’s lens captures the recurring pollutant known as man manufacturing a scorched earth, polluted rivers, and landscapes in remission.
Along his routine he spots a medical crew stranded outside a military ambulance with an engine prone to breakdown. Leading this crew is Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), who under normal circumstances is researching an academic variant of archaeology. Now her occupation has shifted to a humanitarian exhumer: substituting a library for a mobile mausoleum, Katya digs graves with a volunteer crew as part of an organization that locates often-shallow gravesites, digs up corpses, and transports them to a laboratory where postmortem examinations are conducted. Instead of studying the sedimented past and its archaeological record, she records the shallow depths of the causalities of war—or as she says, “like digging up your own history.”
Mummified, a corpse lays on a stainless steel examination table where a forensic pathologist details the body in front of him, instructing a secretary to transcribe his analysis: “ …sweater material is wet, covered with a layer of grayish soil… cloth of t-shirt disintegrates during the examination, military type pants…” Yet this vulgar recitation continues as the postmortem surveyor proceeds deeper to another strata: “A state of advanced mortem changes… in partial skeletonization and mummification…. skull is deformed on left side of head… missing hands.”
These scenes accompany a monologue with surgical precision. Yet these eulogy recitations are not always regulated to a laboratory where anatomy serves less as a science to locate organs than to point to their absence or mutilation. One scene in particular documents a daunting burial site that functions as a mass grave composed of visceral detail, as corpses (or what remains) are dug up and evaluated on site for any indication of identity, which is repeatedly a failed project—the product of natural or artificial decomposition, mutilation and torture.
These annotations of death compose the subject in reverse. Bodies are reconstructed on site from their postmortem remains exceeding death as a terminal limit. Starting from the corpse, identity is procured as that which remains and deters organic decomposition. These continual scenes of surgical precession contain an abundance of information that starkly contrasts the otherwise-mute narration—the deliberate monotony of these gravedigger scenes are replete with precise and minute observations. Postmortem identity is relegated to that which resists natural and organic decomposition—or, metal insignias that have deterred enough rust to be recognizable. This reverse taxonomy detects identity as a reconstructive task, appearing as a strange inverse of procedural dissections and autopsy reports.
But scripting of the body’s material afterlife is strangely humane—if not collective—as corpses alternate between Russian and Ukrainian national bodies. The lethargy of war and its consumption becomes uncanny to this group of exhumers: a mass grave contains both friends and enemies, strangers and foreigners. Accounting for the unilateral fallout and its chanced reconciliation punctuates an infallible crime scene, a multitude of non-identifiable corpses and the fragility of bodies under war. The stratagem of the corpse offers no resolve. In another scene, Sergiy and Katya deliver a body to a provisional but permanent cemetery where dead bodies are compressed, as victimhood is nearly anonymous. As the English subtitles translate the placeholder that is a wooden cross as “temporarily non-identified defender of Ukraine”—or, #4769-349-31.
Nearly always the dialogue is as static as the camera, stationary and flat. If anything communicates, it is the ground—alternating between military-grade tracks in the snow or mud, demolished obsidian rock, or collapsed buildings. Expeditions to locate burial sites are oftentimes screened with banality as Katya, in the passenger seat, stares outwards at a desolate landscape with thoughts adrift. In these moments the anticipation of conflict—whether bullets or road mines (of which we are told litter this landscape)—are deterred for solace, inertia, even some semblance of peace. Vasyanovych often records the paradoxical serenity of life after violence or war or history, underscored by one scene where Sergiy’s engine breaks down in inclimate weather (again) and a romance (for lack of a better term) ensues in the back of this mobile mausoleum, adjacent decaying bodies in a headless transgression.
It is also not as if Sergiy is denied an exit from this state of affairs. Over one scene, driving in his transporter, Sergiy finds a vehicle burning by a roadside bomb. Fire extinguisher in hand, Sergei rushes to the scene, attempting to locate any signs of life. A woman lies outside the car, buried in sand but with a pulse, who Sergiy single-handedly saves. A few scenes later, this woman calls on him with gratitude. Her organization works in “ecological maintenance” and has deemed Ukraine ecologically unsalvageable. She informs him that “due to the war this territory became completely unsuitable for living” and that the project of resuscitating Ukraine is environmentally impossible. As appreciation, she offers Sergiy a job, elsewhere in “Europe,” away from the debris that is contemporary Ukraine. Sergiy barely considers the offer, with solace in his decision that there is no outside (to him) of Ukraine. Somewhere between patriotism, or passivity, nevertheless for Sergiy there is no exit.
Condemned to this planet, without escape, Atlantis short-circuits liberal notions of resolve by forefronting Sergiy’s infinite resignation. With accolades such as various selections at international film festivals and Ukraine’s Oscar entry, and recently distributed to an Anglophile audience via Grasshopper Film, Atlantis resuscitates the post-apocalypse genre in a very contemporary environment.
Often Atlantis derives from Eastern European post-apocalypse and science fiction films wherein content is sequestered for form, or the (non)personification of landscape, an aesthetic ingrained in Piotr Szulkin’s Golem (1980), Konstantin Lopushansky’s Dead Man’s Letters (1986), Alexander Sokurov’s Whispering Pages (1994), and—naturally—Tarkovksy’s Stalker (1979). Each of these landscapes are asphyxiated, out-of-breath and in decay. Something profoundly nonhuman occupies these terrains, inaugurating the ends of man and its withdrawal. Intoxication-by-landscape exhibits symptoms of nihilism of the spirit and an intense meaninglessness to life. The human suffers.
Yet Atlantis is far from surreal and isn’t remotely scripted as melodrama—instead it lends itself to a prisoner-escape plot without the escape. Whereas the aforementioned post-apocalypse films reveal a wasteland growing at the onset of modernity and its degeneration, one finds a more similar resignation within Yuri Ilyenko’s Swan Lake: The Zone (1990). Here, in the shadow of the USSR, a post-Soviet prisoner escapes confinement to hide out in a rusted hammer-and-sickle construct, only to ultimately abandon escape and accept postmortem judgment.
Sergiy’s growing acceptance of the confinement that is the present atones the loss of an Earth. Planetary melancholy comes compounded in many forms, as Tarkovsky’s guide in Stalker recites: “There’s nothing else left to people on Earth.” One also finds in a decadent mythology the voice of Pasolini’s Medea: “Earth, where is your meaning? Where can I find you again? Where is the bond that linked you to the Sun? My feet touch Earth, but I do not recognize it.” Sergiy accepts both wagers: the irreversibility of a future Earth as well as the melancholy that returns, dwelling in a speculative earth merely four years in the future.
Although this is very much Valentyn Vasyanovych’s film (he directs, shoots, writes, edits, and produces) it largely belongs to a planet—not immediately “our” planet, but of a planet to come, devastated by overgrown nature, man, and her technical artifacts. In Atlantis and other adjacent climate fiction, the resilience of the Earth to the human project has noticeably expired. As climate fiction gradually becomes canonical of our times, and studies within and of “the Anthropocene” are anything but lacking in a currency and language, the human project will either approach incoming disasters with a resilient optimism or militarized augmentation. Somewhere between these poles, Atlantis sits—a product of its own historical inertia that is yet to be determined.
Atlantis is now available on Projectr.