Heal Thyself, by David Bax
There’s something off about Claudia Llosa’s Aloft, not in the intentional way of a horror movie (though there is some of that) but in the way of a jigsaw puzzle that someone has “completed” by forcing together parts that don’t fit and discarding inconvenient pieces. The first sequence gets right to work raising eyebrows, depicting a flock of families with sick children being carted out to the middle of nowhere so one lucky kid who gets a white pebble wrapped in a leaf will be allowed to see a faith healer in a handmade wigwam built from twigs. Jennifer Connelly is there with her two sons, one of whom has a falcon. To quote a superhero movie from a few weeks ago, none of this makes any sense. It’s not just that the windy location clearly forced the already unnatural dialogue to be ADRed by the wooden actors playing the other families. It’s that whatever Llosa is doing here is the opposite of what the kids call “worldbuiding.” She’s insisting on the reality of her film rather than convincing us of it.
After that prologue, Aloft jumps ahead twenty years. Ivan, the boy with the falcon, has grown up, which you can tell because now he has a bunch of falcons and also because he’s played by Cillian Murphy. A documentary filmmaker named Jannia (Melanie Laurent) has come looking for Ivan’s mother, Nana (Connelly), who has apparently become a person of some notoriety in the intervening years. Ivan hasn’t seen or heard from his mother since shortly after that day with the faith healer but he agrees to join Jannia on her journey. From this point, Llosa jumps back and forth in time between Ivan’s search for his mother and the events that led to their estrangement.
It’s obvious that there’s meant to be a hint of fantasy or magic to this world, what with the blind kids being able to see again after the laying on of hands and the pieced-together structures reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. But these elements feel half-considered. The healer (William Shimell) is a bland grump. And when we see Nana help him build one of his twig huts, it seems to be a very long, meticulous process. Yet in no time at all, they manage to construct an elaborate seat that depends from a tree and looks like the Blair Witch’s backyard swing.
Connelly, Murphy and Laurent all do perfectly adequate work but when a screenplay calls for so much whispering to birds and peering out mysteriously from behind trees, it’s probably difficult to be naturalistic. What they are easily able to sell, though, is how cold they are, probably because Llosa wisely chose to shoot in locations where it is indeed very, very cold. The plumes of breath coming out of their mouths aren’t visual effects and one assumes their shivering is not an actorly choice.
Aloft‘s frozen setting does lend the film some tension, as many scenes take place atop frozen lakes. The sound of cracking ice alone is enough to inspire anxiety in an audience but even here, Llosa overplays her hand. The scenes in which the threat of icy death is ratcheted up may have you cowering in your chair but they outsize the movie that surrounds them, like a death metal song in the middle of a folk festival.
Maybe the thin ice is a metatextual comment on how shaky the story and characters are. Or maybe the huts made out of branches are a better illustration of the precariousness of everything contained herein. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to dismantle Aloft and see that Llosa has stitched together a pastiche of contrived wounds, traumas and secrets and insisted that this is a story about people. Really, they’re nothing more than stick figures.