Review by Sean Boelman
Amanda Kramer is no stranger to Fantastic Fest, her previous features Give Me Pity! and Ladyworld both having played at the Austin genre festival. So Unreal is Kramer’s first foray into documentary filmmaking, and it’s just as idiosyncratic as one would expect — an intriguing experiment in formalism that is full of interesting ideas, even if they don’t always pay off.
In the movie, Kramer explores the genre of cyber-cinema, considering the role of classics (The Matrix, The Terminator), cult classics (eXistenZ, Tetsuo: The Iron Man), and even more obscure films in a discussion of the relationship between technology, the media, and ourselves. Like many essay films, So Unreal is likely a cinephiles-only affair, but it is made even more so by a challenging structure that threatens to test the viewer’s patience.
Kramer’s documentary is one of transformation — future into present, utopia into dystopia, dream into reality, and literal into abstract. What starts as an examination of cyber-cinema soon evolves into something attempting to be more profound: an exploration of what makes us human. Although Kramer doesn’t always succeed in philosophizing on this theme in depth, she should at least be given credit for making such an ambitious swing.
The film takes some tangents that are intriguing, but aren’t explored substantially enough to really challenge the viewer. For example, there is a section that addresses the inherent sexuality of some of the cyber-cinema films used as case studies, which is a natural extension of Kramer’s filmography, but there’s enough content here to make a documentary in and of itself — not just one section of a larger documentary.
Ultimately, this is an essay film that is less about its content than it is about the vibes. Of course, as much of the movie’s success in that regard is owed to editor Benjamin Shearn and composer Josh Ascalon (who also share the credit for sound design) as it is to Kramer. So Unreal fittingly has an entrancing nature to it thanks to the hypnotic soundscape by Shearn and Ascalon.
The tone is further set by a narration track by Debbie Harry, the frontwoman of the classic rock band Blondie. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason to why Harry was chosen for the role other than her voice having the perfect blend of serenity and sensuality to make the film feel more alluring.
To tell this story, Kramer uses a combination of 16-bit-esque graphics from Jon Cooper and footage from the movies she is referencing. It’s definitely a lot more kinetic than your average video essay thanks to the retrofuturist vibe to which Kramer is fully committed, effectively creating the ethereal vibe that is clearly the intention.
So Unreal is certainly an ambitious documentary, and it deserves a great deal of recognition for that alone. However, in its ninety-odd minute runtime, it arguably attempts to bite off more than it can chew, leaving its thematic exploration feeling somewhat underwhelming and making it more effective as a sensory experience.
So Unreal is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.