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2030's opening shot is two lines and a color.
The color is blue. The bottom half of the screen is the blue of the ocean; the top half the blue of the sky. The first line is the intersection of the two, cutting across the length of the image: the horizon. The second, which emerges perpendicular from the center bottom of the frame, is a rounded arrow. Long and narrow, coming to a soft point with an upward curve, trailed by the thin tail of a motor and then the wider tail of a wake, a woman driving.
The boat breaks through the film's dual titles, and they slide away from it. 2030, the film's official English title, is the bottom half, overlapped slightly by Nước, the original Vietnamese title. The title wipes from the center, and the moment lingers, these two lines and a color, before the fiction takes the reins.
2030 is set largely in the titular year, 100 kilometers south of Ho Chi Minh City. The initial title card establishes that 80% of the population has been evacuated due to the rising sea level as an effect of global warming. In the frame narrative, which makes up the opening of the film and the third act, Sao, the woman driving the boat, retrieves her husband's body from the authorities and goes to work at a floating farm where he was murdered. The first act is largely composed of scenes from the weeks leading up to this death, with Sao and Thi, her husband, fishing, growing greens, trying to conceive, and living in this world.
The second act is set mostly in the year 2020, when Sao was partnered with the man who, in 2030, runs the floating farm where she will go on to work at. Giang, at that point, was a university student on research leave. He finds a type of semi-freshwater seaweed, and uses it to find a way to genetically modify produce to make it capable of successfully absorbing salt water.
Once Giang leaves Sao to pursue his research (and ultimately marry into the family who run the business that funds his research), the film returns to its present, where Sao is left to determine whether her quest is for revenge, knowledge, or survival.
The answer is, of course, all three, and all of them partial. Giang ultimately tells Sao that he hired Thi to steal seeds from his family's floating farm, but his getting caught led to his death. Thi's brother, Thanh, had earlier claimed he heard Giang's voice ordering Thi's death. Because of this it is hard to put credence into Giang's claims; but the movie still ends with Giang and Sao's reconciliation and their launching a submersible from the farm during a typhoon to, presumably, expropriate the knowledge of the genetic modification for the good of the people. 2030 ends with scenes of an underwater city, and then Sao and Giang laying side by side on an infinite stretch of sand, the water having receded.
Last year, Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson co-edited an anthology called Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, which attempted to begin the process of canon formation (or at least build a syllabus) for ecological science fiction. At its best, Green Planets argues for both a reading of how ecology operates within science fiction, and for an ecological reading of science fiction.
As 2030 progresses, long shots are used to build on the first of those two initial lines. The composition is never as clean as the opening sequence, as variations are introduced in the form of buildings or other boats, but these shots largely stay tied to the horizon*. The rest of the movie—the bulk of it—uses frequent close-ups and medium shots to emphasize its human drama. These begin from the shots of Thi's corpse, bruised and dead and clutching a leaf between his lips.
What we see in those long shots is the sea and the sky, wanting to bleed into each other but drawn across by a thin line. But we see, also, the cities beneath the sea, and the movement of a woman who is grieving, and the joy and terror of water that is tricked into our eyes by Inouk Demers' lovely piano-heavy score. They are the reminder that this is a genre film, and that the drama is a way of moving through that.
It is in the film's plot—as opposed to both its composition and its drama—that the film recalls the best of the essays in Green Planets. The story runs a thread through that composition, leveraging ecological science fiction to explore issues of property.
An early scene in the film sees Thi run his boat into another group of men fishing near a floating sign reading "private property." He demands they get off his land; they express skepticism that the sea can be owned. His response is to leap into their boat and start throwing fists. Not long after, he finds holes in his fishing net, the caught fish eaten, and decides that it is not worth it to hold on to the land. He paints over the signs with a For Sale message and a phone number.
It is when his land is for sale that he receives the call that leads to his working for Giang and his murder. His murder is apparently a consequence of his stealing food from the floating farm; Sao finds a leaf in his mouth when she goes to claim the body, and when she begins work there she is watering the plants the leaf came from.
In the second act, one scene sees Giang presenting the findings of his research in a corporate setting. Once he has revealed that he made the breakthrough they were hoping for, there is a moment of tension at the table: he wants to use this technique to seed the ocean itself with produce; his backers suggest partnership with a leading research university and further development of the floating farms. The film ends with a similar issue: Giang's claim that he hired Thi hinges on the idea that he wants, at least in some way, to liberate this knowledge, while the company he has married into wants it to remain proprietary.
The question of property—both physical and intellectual—is so central to the effects of global warming, and so far outside of the scope of the science about it, that to see it represented so strongly in 2030 is borderline revelatory. To say that the film allows this connection to be thought would be disingenuous; think tanks and military researchers are undoubtedly pouring millions into this very problem every year.
What 2030 does allow is an image. For all of it that may be Waterworld as a domestic drama (by way of Antonioni, in the best sense, or one of Gerhard Richter's Seestück paintings in motion), those two lines and a color are its alone. And behind those lines combined with that color, wherever it may appear, the viewer will be able to see, like the drowned city, the question of property.
*I feel it worth noting that I attended this film as a part of CAAMFest, and that I was particularly attuned to this theme by the opening remarks of former BAM/PFA video curator Steve Seid, who introduced the film.
Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.