We’re in a tomb.
Despite being neither a household name nor one I could immediately place, seeing writer/director Seth A. Smith attached to a film while sifting through the schedule at the Fantasia International Film Festival forced me to pause. A quick search later revealed him to be the filmmaker behind 2017’s The Crescent—an under-rated gem that enthralled me via narrative and visuals alike. It didn’t therefore matter what his latest, Tin Can, was about because I felt confident it would prove memorable whether I ended up enjoying it or not. That its claustrophobic sci-fi thriller quickly won me over with its early David Cronenberg inspirations only allowed my excitement to increase with each passing minute as I found myself unable to detach from its captivatingly dark and timely pandemic mystery.
The disease he and co-writer Darcy Spidle have unleashed upon their world is known as Coral, a fungal infection that affixes itself to human skin in order to grow into a shell-like casing before ultimately burrowing deeper to cut off its host’s blood supply and take over. Nobody has been able to come close to discovering a fix and the infected are being rounded up for quarantine at a place known as The Vault. The poor are dying while the rich seek to expedite a new form of artificial “preservation” (VASE) that could potentially keep them in stasis for decades in the hope that they will be revived once a cure is found. It’s there that we enter the story at a crucial moment in humanity’s brief history.
Fret (Anna Hopkins) arrives to test what she believes to be a breakthrough using metals to sever the bond between fungus and skin. Her ex-husband John (Simon Mutabazi) is scheduled to be placed inside a VASE pod and put to sleep to curb his rapidly advancing disease. Before we can even think about whether her study could save him, however, she’s knocked unconscious only to wake inside a pod of her own. Fret didn’t pay for this “luxury.” She’s been a vocal opponent of the process from the start due to its amoral origins and the fact there wasn’t sufficient time to test it before Coral ignited the demands of wealthy benefactors. She didn’t give consent either. Desperate to escape knowing a solution was in-hand, her nightmare begins.
With industrial sounds, viscous fluids, and intubation tubes surrounding her, Fret is trapped in a three-foot by five-foot cylindrical tube. When she can pry off a cover to see outside, it’s only a tiny rectangular vent providing few sightlines besides the crazed, smiling face of another “patient” (Tim Dunn‘s Whistler) across from her. He’s ecstatic about this potential rebirth and ready for whatever comes next, but he’s also the only one present that no one else knows. Because next to Fret is John trying to wrap his head around remembering what the discharge process was (he researched the blood engineering, not the device itself). Then there’s a benefactor (Michael Ironside‘s Wayne) and a fellow scientist (Amy Trefry‘s Darcy). Are they being there a coincidence? Or was it intentional?
Not only will Smith and Spidle eventually give us that answer via dialogue (the first half of the film is set inside Fret’s pod and thus the camera can only see what she’s able to see outside of it), but they’ll also introduce new details we couldn’t even fathom. John thinks they’ve been in stasis for years, but she disagrees since there hasn’t been any muscle atrophy. Do we ever know for certain? No. The metallic suit-wearing technicians silently lumbering around to move pods and initiate a chorus of screams, however, have us thinking former. Maybe Fret was wrong. Maybe the process worked so well that years felt like weeks. Or perhaps whatever force collected them together was secretly preparing behind the scenes. Or maybe the disease won.
I don’t want to talk about the second half of the film (the whole is split in two from the moment Fret wakes up) in too much detail, but you should prepare for a disorienting descent into Hell as fungus and metal fuse to biologic matter to create new lifeforms that subsequently render mankind obsolete. The make-up and costuming are very effective and shows what can be accomplished with a smaller budget when the script allows for so much to unfold in a single room. That environment is memorable too with a cold, oppressive aesthetic complete with steam and pipes transforming it into an organism of its own to mirror the cords protruding out of Fret’s flesh. And the metal sentries are like immovable Cybermen ignoring all appeals.
What occurs is abstract and obtuse enough that the press notes for Tin Can contain a “synopsis” summarizing the entire film with spoilers. It fills in some gaps I certainly didn’t piece together while watching, but none are necessary in the long run. The big reveals as far as what’s happening to these survivors are transparent—especially the selfish reasons their relationships devolved and sealed our world’s fate via flashback memories. We don’t therefore need to know all the finer details to appreciate the larger experience. Most of my enjoyment was more sensory than intellectual anyway. I loved the close-up cinematography, the inventive frames depicting Fret’s pod from above and below (the latter with brushed-metallic, painterly quality reminiscent of The Crescent‘s marbleization), and the overall aural tapestry.
Smith is placing us inside this pod with his lead to make us feel trapped too. And it’s not like escaping from that prison supplies freedom when the room outside its borders is hardly different beyond one’s ability to take a few steps. He and Spidle have created layers upon layers of walls, like a Matryoshka doll, wherein the central core (humanity) is all but erased beneath the weight of fungus, fluid, metal, and architecture. The intrigue therefore lies in whether Fret was ever free to begin with. John says her devotion to the work destroyed their marriage and it was petty jealousies that ultimately put them in these pods. Our species’ base desires forever sabotage our inventive curiosity. It’s why we’ll eventually disappear while nature endures unabated.
courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival