Saul Williams’ and Anisia Uzeyman’s genre/time-hopping multimedia project is occasionally perplexing but nothing short of mesmerizing.
Elder statesman Saul Williams has never shied away from grandiose, multivalent projects. An early adopter of both democratic distribution methods and envelope-pushing indie noise-rap, his career has been typified by restless innovation and intimidating prolificacy. Co-directed with partner Anisia Uzeyman (her second feature), Williams’ directorial debut feature, Neptune Frost, arrives with an analogously charged and audacious context.
Conceptually inspired by his 2016 album, MartyrLoserKing, and conceived in tandem with a coming graphic novel; their film is an ambitiously overstuffed Afrofuturist musical love story with dual narrators. Neptune (alternately played by Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo) is an intersex runway while Matalusa (Kaya Free) is a miner of coltan, a material burden that folds in the film’s criticism of both colonialism and capitalism.
Neptune is an avatar of fluidity shifting between gender perceptions in attire (high heels) and body language. Their liquidity mirrors the film’s communion of the technological and earthly into a multi-dimensional continuum. Matalusa, who’s played by real musician Kaya Free, is less distinctive, but a greater piece of the musical sequences.
This expansive conceit fits snugly into Afrofuturism, an artistic framework that maps such disparate figures as Octavia Butler, Sun Ra, and Jean-Michel Basquiat on the same plain. Subject expert Ytasha Womack summates it as “[combining] elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.”
Neptune Frost leans hardest on the sci-fi facets, envisioning versions of Rwanda and Burundi (also shot there) where flat terrain melds with banks of computers arranged like holy monuments. In this place, Neptune, Matalusa, and other like-minded individuals search for enlightenment in technology, freedom from “The Authority,” and the transcendence of their struggle as Black African people.
Circuitous passages follow Neptune and Matalusa as they encounter a series of plainly metaphorical entities like Memory (Eliane Umhire) and Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba), who wear outfits blanketed in keyboard parts or decorated with Rwandan jewelry made of computer-like wiring. Memory and Innocent are thankfully more cryptic than their names suggest, but they stress the film’s unnecessary density.
Most characters – including the leads – speak with a combination of stream-of-consciousness koans and technobabble that can feel like reading a computer user manual backward. Throughout, it’s not unusual to hear phrases like “The Motherboard is Bleeding” or “first and third world currency.” On an album, that wording in a bar can ideally slide by without drawing attention. It’s much harder in a film with a feast or famine approach to storytelling.
For instance, the aforementioned Memory and Innocent occasionally drop buzzwords, but it’s more believable because they already speak in the evocative trance-like couplets reminiscent of something like Horse Money. Or perhaps as a more apt comparison – the operatic inner mythologies of album-films like Lemonade or When I Get Home. But while those two films were guided by a barely legible connective tissue (vibes), Neptune Frost feels so mired in worldbuilding that it can feel like it’s dragging its feet to the next waypoint.
In other places, it hardly resembles the album-films’ current vogue makeup. Most of the musical numbers are closer to riotous motivational mantras than even the tracks on Williams’ source material album.
These sequences are rarely less than thrilling as discrete pieces. Williams and Uzeyman (who does double duty as DP) shoot them with a holistic approach, following Free but always presenting him as a synecdoche. And production designer/costume designer Cedric Mizero and co-production designer Antoine Nshimiyimana take this as a cue to style each scene like a split between Johnny Mnemonic’s retro-futurism and the clinical surrealism of Southland Tales.
Paired with a futuristic sound that collides Jungle breakbeats, sub-bass blasts, and signature African instruments running through oscillators, the film unexpectedly feels the most cohesive in these moments of synchronicity. Especially when it can segue from Free rattling through a multi-lingual inventory of his tribulation to Lover’s Rock-style bliss.
But even at its most self-evident, the film traffics in provocative choices – textured camera movements that render action lucid but feel contained in a reverie, slick deconstructions of people into polygon maps, or just the pleasurable errant images like someone with a cyborg arm dragging on a cigarette. Hopefully, next time, these two talented artists won’t feel the need to explain so many earthy concerns.
Neptune Frost is currently playing in select theaters.