Credit: TIFF
by Jesse Catherine Webber Featured Film Genre Views

Neptune Frost — Saul Williams & Anisia Uzeyman

June 2, 2022

Neptune Frost lacks for coherence, but remains an oddity worth seeking out on the strength of its formal expressions and bold exploration of ideas.

Saul Williams & Anisia Uzeyman’s Neptune Frost is tethered neither to this world nor entirely apart from it. It’s both a queer film and an anticapitalist, anticolonialist one, and in its shape, it recalls science fiction narratives like The Matrix and Dune, but takes its own form as an Afrofuturist musical. It alternates between languages, between realms, between dreaming and waking, and between tones, and the visual palette mirrors this oscillation throughout as well, reflecting different moods and developments.

Produced in Rwanda, Neptune Frost is set in motion when Matalusa’s brother Tekno is killed by a boss while mining for materials used to build electronics. Matalusa then meets and falls in love with intersex hacker Neptune, played by both Cheryl Ishega and Elvis Ngabo, and they become part of a collective called MartyrLoserKing (also the name of Williams’ 2016 album in which he began to explore some of the themes present in the film) and begin resisting the society that is working to marginalize them — as members of the working class, as people of color, and as people who live outside of the West. Other characters filter in and out through various songs and segments, though it’s rarely clear how they affect or reflect the narrative.

More essential here is the ethereal music, composed by Williams, which matches the film’s techno-psychedelic imagery; it emerges from and then in turn shapes the diegesis of the film. None of the songs feel forced or out of place, and though most of them aren’t especially melodic, they successfully establish a mood and communicate the emotions of the characters. Neptune Frost’s unique costuming likewise stands out — during daytime scenes, they can be seen to incorporate computer parts, while during nighttime sequences, the neon lighting transforms them into something else entirely. These techno-centric visuals are also incorporated into the set design and the VFX, with some of the most memorable images including a man who flies using bicycle wheels as wings, wire face masks used to identify military members, cloaks made of computer keyboards, and a traditional string instrument that creates electronic music.

Though Neptune Frost’s plot is sparse and sometimes unclear, the film is not one that necessarily needs or wants to be plot-forward. That works out mostly fine, but unfortunately, despite its inviting technical craftsmanship, it does sometimes feel lacking in energy and propulsiveness. The performances, for their part, are engaging enough, but they lack the specificity of the direction and set design; most characters operate more as symbols and images than as fully-formed people, and it’s a particularly frustrating development for a movie with so much (successful) going on to fail to engage across the board and throughout the runtime. Still, its chosen thematics — gender, colonialism, technology — are richly explored, and so, despite sometimes lacking in coherence, Neptune Frost remains a worthwhile oddity on the strength of its formal expressions and its bold, novel exploration of a multitude of ideas.

Originally published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.