Directed by Matthew Wade Short film review by Andrew Young
After accruing both buzz and awards on the festival circuit, Matthew Wade’s Plena Stellarum comes with the bar of expectation already highly placed. It doesn’t quite hit that bar, but it doesn’t really miss it either. Rather, it shifts it to the side, twists it around and does wholly unexpected things with it.
As an illustrator, animator and musician as well as a filmmaker, Wade has brought his array of talents together here, acting as writer-director-producer-designer with only his wife/co-producer Sara Lynch and musical collaborator Jacob Kinch stopping him from being a true one-man band. Wordless and plotless, Plena Stellarum is a sort-of sci-fi, sort-of horror and sort-of generally unsettling thought-provoking oddity. The plot such as it is consists of some skulls and little red orbs floating about a generally deathly landscape, all animated in the style of a retro video-game, which combines with an eerie score and sound design to create the kind of tension expected before a horrific act that here never comes. There is nothing to be scared of as such, but that doesn’t halt a lingering sense that something sinister might be just round the corner from the first second to the last.
Despite being a successful exercise in haunting atmospherics, there is a distinct aimlessness to Plena Stellarum that might infuriate some; yet if thought is given to the film’s deeper meanings, there are potential rewards to be had. It could be argued that a film should be judged entirely on its own terms, with the director’s own comments largely superfluous to an audience’s enjoyment of it. However here, Wade’s description of his short as “neon ghosts dreaming in dead landscapes” is vital to exploring any deeper meaning the film may have.
Everything is designed to inspire a feeling of death; the floating skulls, the haunted house, the leafless, creaking trees, the bricks whose ghostly glow suggests that the very fabric of this world is touched by death. Perhaps Wade is asking, “Do ghosts dream of dead sheep?” Movies tend to show ghosts as “living” in our world, but Wade twists this supernatural convention so that the dead inhabit a world that is in fact dead. Everything we see of the world is filtered through our live minds, so is the world of the living-dead completely drained of life? Wade manages to ask such broad questions using just a tagline and his stylistic choices. The retro animation would have used a fraction of the budget needed to tell a “more realistic” tale, yet it always feels like a creative decision rather than a financial restriction. Less successful are the interludes with a more Tron-like aesthetic that are a bit too opaque in their meaning. Or perhaps that’s the point. Maybe the entire “dream” is meant to be without action or meaning like, well, our dreams. Wade might have been teasing us all along – there is no meaning, it doesn’t make sense, ghost dreams are really no more chilling or thrilling than ours.
If this all sounds like ultimately frustrating artiness then that’s a matter of personal taste, but Wade must be applauded for seemingly achieving what he set out to. One of Plena Stellarum’s greatest strengths is that it is clearly a short film. The lack of dialogue and visual style could not be sustained, meaning it could only work as a short. This is not a reduced version of a feature Wade couldn’t afford to make, it is an interesting, original entry into an art form in its own right.