You wake up inside a massive steel stomach, resonating like whale songs or embalmed vocal cords, speaking to you like some ghost: get up. You’re drifting. You’re floating. You’re unmoored. The neon green safety light illuminates everything around you, the red peeling sides of the internal hull, the grain that’s supposed to last you the whole trip, the utter lack of another soul to speak to, and you call out, “Hello,” only to hear your voice bounce against the lining of the roaring ship, every reinforcing rib pushing it back towards you. You step hesitantly towards the only irregularity in the metal, an archway closed off with a heavy door, and you open it by spinning the five spoke handle and moving into a corridor as cramped as the place you just left was open. Creeping cautiously, the door slams behind you, with no evidence of manipulation or another person having touched it, and the slamming sends waves of crashing noise down the hallway at you, bouncing like a snake off the walls.
Every room you look into is empty, save for maybe the blue glow of a static-filled TV, and eventually you find yourself in the red glow of the communications room, and a phone off the hook tells you someone else is in here; you can hear them speak through the headset, you eavesdropping on the shared line, as they talk to their wife, or their daughter, or their friend, with every word hesitant and waiting for the strained and distorted reply until, eventually, the replies stop coming. There’s a porthole to the outside here, and you see endless streaks of white sand and cock-eyed buildings crumbling in the distance, a few metal poles here and there you can’t divine the purpose of, and before you turn around, a shadow rolls around you. The ghosts know you’re here now.
This is the haunted, lonely world of Dead Slow Ahead, the most riveting science fiction horror film ever made of unaltered documentary footage shot aboard a simple cargo ship and crew going about their business. There is no attempt at twisting the images seen into this shape, no plot contrived of unrelated moments and disparate actions to form something that was never there; just the spaces of the ship, as unfamiliar (or even more so) than any space-faring vessel to the likes of you and I (assuming you, like me, have never visited a cargo ship). It takes the decontextualized working imagery of 2012’s brilliant Leviathan but slows it down, pulls back, and makes even the living seem like strange specters haunting their own lives. If that film was focused on life and death, Dead Slow Ahead seems passively indifferent to it, like life is something that’s already happened, like memories are the last available part of a fading consciousness.
I guess I still haven’t really explained what Dead Slow Ahead IS, in any real sense, so here’s my best shot: it’s a documentary, more or less, that consists entirely of footage shot on a Filipino freighter, traveling from one destination to another. Every moment is caught as if the cameras weren’t there, every shot displaying a reality of work (and leisure) on the ship, from karaoke nights to ship leaks to unloading and offloading via crane, all slow, methodical, placing us in the space and letting us live there before it changes. There’s no onscreen titles to give us explanations, no talking heads telling the camera what’s happening. In fact, what little dialogue there is exists primarily as the crew calling home, the delay and poor audio of the calls chopping up all attempts at communication. Every moment is the shadow of another moment. What is the ship carrying? Where are they going? What are these shores we see, the color of ash, the curls of sand looking like a still shot of a roaring river? Its a documentary, but not as we know it traditionally—instead of giving the audience information, it purposefully obfuscates it. Its closest relative is At Sea, but that was focused on showing reality. Dead Slow Ahead takes the Werner Herzog style idea of “ecstatic truth” to a further place than even Herzog himself, heavily obfuscating its subject until it arrives at a Brechtian home where the change in perspective, and the audience’s knowledge of this formal oddity, reveals something awe-inspiring in the banal, the things we take for granted. It makes a freighter ship into something bordering on magic, the proletariat as genre hero.
Alien too was about a cargo ship, and Alien too made something transcendental and coldly beautiful out of the blue collar worker. The only difference here is that the monster has no form, has no body, visibly kills no one—what is unsettling is the greater machine we know these men function under, the demands they have, the depersonalization of their work and their fleeting moments trying to connect. Through static, composed shots, we develop an idea of the ship that makes it as unfamiliar as any fiction piece, a part of the world that we have never seen before. It’s beautiful, and it’s terrifying; it borders on a kind of Christian view of Old Testament divinity, in the same way Terrence Malick’s rippling fields court New Testament forgiveness, and it’s no mistake that every shot of this could be pulled and placed in a gallery and not look out of place. Hell, Leviathan might have been an even more apt title for this film, a roving beast holding the workers in its belly. Surely the second coming is at hand.
In the broader film world, Dead Slow Ahead is another shining example of how documentary form is in many ways evolving faster than fiction film, from the previously mentioned Leviathan influencing every use of GoPro footage since to the embedded journalism of Cartel Land to Joshua Oppenheimer’s frankly revolutionary interrogation of tragedy and the lies people will convince themselves of to not realize their own monstrous actions [The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence]. Dead Slow Ahead is pointing the way to an entirely mood and image based kind of storytelling, a non-narrative narrative feature, as contradictory as that sounds. The first layer is the story-less simplicity of the image, the second is the narrative we force to congeal out of that, and the third is the narrative we realize exists underneath this, in the reality of the documentary approach, precisely because of the narrative we imagined from the formal deviation. It’s using duplicity to create truth. And, assuming you prefer your films with less visible people in them, it’s just simply the most gorgeous film you’re likely to see all year.
Directed by Mauro Herce; written by Mauro Herce and Manuel Muñoz Rivas; 74 minutes.