Sunday, February 22, 2009

Movie Review: Otto

It's been a while since I've reviewed works in other media... as usual, HERE BE SPOILERS.

"Otto" (or "Up With Dead People") is a trippy, surreal, metafictional German movie about zombies. Sort of. Otto is an undead teenager in a world where fringe society has embraced the image and concept of the zombie as the ultimate outsider, representing the corruption and rot of the mainstream. The opening narration also informs us that zombies have evolved and now exhibit a semblance of intelligence, though their hunger for living flesh is still their most prominent feature.

Enter Medea Yarn, the bastard offspring of Wednesday Addams and Karl Marx. She's working on a movie called "Up With Dead People", a semi-pornographic tale of gay zombies revolting against the capitalist upper classes. (Just to point out how weird this movie is: Medea's girlfriend, Hella Bent, literally lives in a bubble of silent film - whenever she's around, her section of the screen goes black-and-white, piano music starts playing, and her dialogue appears on plaques after she speaks. It's whimsical, but amusing.)

Medea sees herself as a champion of the downtrodden, so when she meets Otto - a filthy, shambling, bloodied mess who can't remember his previous life - she takes him under her wing and casts him in "Up With Dead People". But the joke's on her, because Medea thinks Otto is just a method actor wholly dedicated to his role.

That's what makes this movie so interesting: at some point, we're led to question whether zombies even exist in this world, because aside from Otto, every walking corpse we see turns out to be an actor in Medea's film. In fact, it eventually becomes clear that we've been alternating between "reality" and "Up With Dead People" all along, and maybe there were never any real zombies at all.

But if that's true, what about Otto? There's a twist here that's basically an inversion of Ryan Reynolds' "The Nines", because we expect a bizarre and unnatural resolution to that question - maybe, by some freakish coincidence, Otto is the only real zombie in a world that has appropriated his condition and made it completely symbolic - but we eventually get a perfectly rational explanation for what's going on. It may not be true, because Otto's damaged memories can support either scenario, but I always prefer narratives that leave the choice to the audience rather than raise an ambiguity and then force the audience down one path of interpretation; it didn't work for "The Nines" and it hasn't worked for "Battlestar Galactica" (as evidenced by the fact that the mumbo-jumbo has been mostly absent since Earth).

Most movies like "Otto" tend to straddle a very thin line when it comes to suspension of disbelief, and it's very easy to cross that line: in fact, I'd say the overwhelmingly dominant trend is to strain that suspension until it snaps and can't be restored. This is exactly where "The Nines" or "Jacob's Ladder" would go wrong, by creating an unstable and ambiguous world and then going just a touch too far for us to follow. It's relatively rare to find a narrative that toes the line without crossing it... but "Otto" does so very nicely.