Nathaniel Atcheson's DOMAIN takes place 30 feet underground in bunkers designed to keep the last remaining vestiges of humanity on life support after a virus devastates the majority of the world's population. Surviving on recycled air, water and unpleasant sounding nutrient shakes, the "lucky" few are living solitary lives in their own pods. They communicate with each other via video screens, providing them with the only human contact they so desperately crave. When their companions begin to mysteriously disappear from their bunkers, they're forced to question what's really happening in the world outside their doors.
DOMAIN is a perfect example of a bottle story; it's an ingenious way to make a movie on a low budget, placing emphasis on performance and dialogue rather than spectacle. Much like the characters, we're left to imagine what happened to the outside world, and the film gives us just enough stimulus to set the scene in our own minds. The performances are all solid and on point, and the screenplay develops its characters and the tension between them efficiently while never having the luxury of them being in the same room together. This is a rare, intelligent science fiction movie.
Like all good sci-fi, DOMAIN can be seen as allegorical. With the characters trapped and only able to communicate via video screens, it's easy to read the film as being about the disconnect we feel in an omni-connected world, and a comment on the way we interact in digital social spaces. It's about what can happen when we shun traditional human contact, makes us wonder just how well we really know each other.
Of course, with a setup like the one in the film, you're left waiting for a twist, or some sort of revelation that explains what's really going on. When the mystery kicks in you really get on board, and want this little movie to kick your ass. I'm happy to say that the filmmakers did a great job with the resources they had, and for the most part, succeeded.
While the actors do a fantastic job, and I love that the cast is filled with unknowns who do a great job, I can't help but wonder if a little star power might have given this film the extra push it needed to hit the mainstream. The concept and script are certainly good enough to warrant a little extra production value. That's not to say there's anything wrong with what's here, I just would like to see sci-fi like this have as big an audience as possible.
Setting the film in claustrophobic bunkers may limit the opportunity to make use of the visual side of the cinematic medium, but it's made up for with an interesting color scheme and smart camera work. The spartan, sterile design of the bunkers has echoes of 1997's CUBE, which no doubt had some influence. I also liked the vaguely retro design of the graphical user interfaces the characters use to connect to each other. Everything is set to a pleasingly understated electronic score that sets the mood perfectly.
While I have some questions about the events late in the film - and a few logic issues (why are there such ample supplies of cosmetics in the bunkers?!) - DOMAIN achieves a lot with very little. I applaud the filmmakers for managing to stand head-to-head with the other, higher-budgeted bunker-based sci-fi movie this year, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE. DOMAIN is every bit as good as that, and does it with far less.
I can't help but be reminded of the 1909 short story "The Machine Stops" written by E. M. Forster. It's also about futuristic bunkers where people communicate via video links, and was remarkably prescient for its time. It not only managed to predict the internet, but the changes that would occur in everyday human interaction with the advent of interconnected technologies. I'm not sure if the makers of DOMAIN were influenced by it, but it's hard to ignore the similarities. I've also wanted to see a screen version of "The Machine Stops", and while being different, this is the closest to an adaptation I might get.