World building is a bit of a lost art in cinema. Not the kind that digitally creates enormous cities or even planets like we see in every summer blockbuster worth its salt nowadays, but stories that introduce places and times with their own very distinctive rules and customs. Such places make any story set inside them inherently interesting no matter how creatively successful the tale itself.
The little-seen Upside Down portrayed two planets that orbit so close together there are high places on each surface (mountains, buildings) where they interact, gravity from each world only affecting objects and people from the relevant planet. YA love story In Time depicted a world where we stop aging at 25 and only stay alive thanks to build-ups of time that are displayed on digital clocks on our forearms.
Even commercial movies like the work of Disney or Pixar (Wreck It Ralph, Inside Out) do a great job of setting up a world that makes sense in itself and delivers a great story within in.
The best world building in ages now comes in The Lobster. It seems to be contemporary times somewhere in Europe as singletons are bought to a grand and sumptuously appointed but slightly menacing hotel in the countryside (actually filmed in Ireland).
Being single is apparently against the natural order, and David (Colin Farrell) is one of many sent to the hotel and given 45 days to fall in love with another guest/inmate or suffer the ultimate fate dictated by The State – he’ll be turned into an animal of his choosing and set loose into the wild (the title of the film comes from the animal David chooses because of the length of its fertile life).
Where other stories set in the universe of the story might be about totalitarianism or jack-booted thugs checking relationship certificates (although that does appear much later on), he and the other poor loners fraternise chastely.
There are the communal dances, the myriad of refined sporting pursuits, walks by the sea and regular trips to the country where half the inmates are given tranquiliser guns and the other sent fleeing into the woods – days added and subtracted to sentences according to how many of your fellows you can shoot or avoid.
The first half of the movie is thrilling because it’s something you’ve never seen before. The genteel, stiff upper lip stoicism of the staff and inmates mask a truly bizarre set of practices and habits. For one, masturbation is strictly forbidden – we see David’s friend (John C Reilly) punished for doing so by having his hand shoved in a toaster.
To make matters worse, one of the duties of the attractive, lithe young hotel maid is to come into male inmates’ rooms, pull her skirt up and gyrate suggestively on their laps for a minute or so before calmly going about her duties.
David’s clock is ticking on as he goes on the regular hunts, sees his other friend (Ben Wishaw) achieve the status of a relationship and escape animalhood – albeit based on a lie – and does his best to pretend to fall in love with an emotionless fellow inmate to keep himself human.
Then – somewhat abruptly – The Lobster collapses and loses everything that had been so exciting until that point. David takes the opportunity to escape into the woods to join a splinter group lead by Léa Seydoux, falling in love for real with another member (Rachel Weitz) and breaking yet another set of rules in doing so, and together they all lead a rebellion against the status quo.
None of what happens in the story during David’s activities with the strange dissident group is nearly as interesting as the repressed world and imaginative rules of the hotel.
Until then, there’s a lot co-writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos leaves out that makes it all the more interesting. We never learn or see the science behind how humans are changed into animals, there’s simply a nondescript door at the end of a bright conservatory marked ‘transformation room’ that nobody wants to go through. Such narrative touches make it all the more original – sci-fi that’s not concerned with any traditional sci-fi trappings.
Bursts of shocking sexuality and violence contrast beautifully with the air of civility and tyranny and The Lobster spends the first hour setting up what you think might be the most inventive story you’ve seen in ages. It just abandons it all too quickly and you’re left watching a movie that feels like a generic thriller by comparison.