SXSW 2020: ECHOES OF THE INVISIBLE -- A Gorgeous Documentary Whose Narrative Doesn't Quite Come Together
Review by Sean Boelman
Steve Elkins’s gorgeously-shot Echoes of the Invisible is probably the largest-minded documentary that was set to screen at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. However, despite Elkins’s grand aspirations for the film, it simply isn’t consistent enough to be particularly profound.
The movie explores the journeys of four people as they set out to understand the natural world around them with the hopes of discovering something about themselves in turn. As is the case with any documentary containing multiple storylines, there are some weak links, but since Elkins cuts between them, audiences won’t be stuck with their least favorite for too long.
The first story in the film follows a blind man as he runs through Death Valley alone, challenging his mind and body. This is arguably the most effective of the storylines because it has the greatest emotional impact. More so than all the others, this storyline will inspire the viewers to set out on their own journey to find their unique connection to the world.
Elkins compares his most effective story to what is perhaps the movie’s weakest. The blind man’s story is interwoven with the story of a journalist trying to retrace the migration of humanity’s ancestors. Although this is an undoubtedly impressive feat, the journalist’s motivations simply aren’t as strong as his counterpart’s, and as a result, this segment isn’t as riveting.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Elkins explores people who are working to understand the smaller aspects of the world. The more interesting of these storylines follows a photographer as she explores some of the oldest living organisms on Earth, this portion of the film is the most poetic, exploring the way the world functioned in the past.
And in what is the only storyline to feel out-of-place in the movie, Elkins wraps up his point with a story about a group of scientists trying to explore the idea of time. While this segment is the most ambitious of the film, there is enough content in it that an entire feature could have been devoted to this material. Elkins sadly doesn’t have enough time to do it justice in his project.
On a technical level, Elkins’s movie is undeniably gorgeous, and this is likely what will gain the film notice. (It won an award for cinematography from the jury via virtual judging.) That said, Elkins doesn’t have enough stylistic consistency for the movie to be an absolute win. For example, large portions of the film explore the idea of silence with a “narration” delivered via captions rather than audio, but other portions of the message are conveyed via interviews. These shifts are frequently jarring.
Echoes of the Invisible is certainly a very pretty movie, but the interwoven narrative isn’t quite tight enough to hold together. Still, Elkins’s ambition and visual prowess alone make this film worth watching.
Echoes of the Invisible was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.