Nightstream returns in its second year with a lineup of films from all around the world, each vying for a different part of your imagination. Whether they titillate or terrify has more to do with the audience than the material as one’s nightmare can be another’s pleasure palace. Depending on where you sit will determine how you receive writer/director Jefferson Moneo’s second feature film Cosmic Dawn, a tale whose perspective is difficult to pin down. Is it a film which uses alien abduction as a metaphor for trauma? Is it suggesting that those on the fringes of society deserve to be heard or believed? Is it outright saying that we’re not alone in the universe, but it’s our closed off natures which prevent any type of ascension or universal inclusion? Moneo’s Cosmic Dawn is entirely mercurial, more often fitting the shape of the person watching rather than making declaration of its own. For that, this science fiction thriller throwback to the ‘80s may have you believing that the truth is out there.
While on a camping trip as a young girl, Aurora (Rachel Pellinen) witnesses her mom being abducted, disappearing from her sight and life forever. Years later, having bounced around various institutions as people decry her claims of aliens as nothing more than traumatic delusions, Aurora (Camille Rowe) finds herself plagued with visions of an unknown woman that both unsettle and intrigue her. These visions lead her to Natalie (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who guides her to Elyse (Antonia Zegers), the leader of an alien-centric cult. Four years later, Aurora is contacted by one of her associates from that period, forcing her to revisit and reevaluate everything she believes to be true.
In a July 2021 Deadline article, Moneo is quoted as saying, “Cosmic Dawn was shaped by an extraterrestrial encounter I had as a child. Like Aurora in the film, no one believed my story. But perhaps recent revelations will start to change people’s minds. Aliens are out there — and they are real!” So whether you yourself are skeptic or not, when going into Cosmic Dawn, it’s important to recognize that Moneo possesses a specific view based on his experience. Oddly, so much of the science fiction of the film is presented with a strange schism between believably and insincerity. The opening abduction, for instance, is presented with beautiful originality: her mother shown amid a luscious pink light, glitter seemingly floating in the air. It looks both otherworldly and like something out of the production design of House II: The Second Story (1987). That the title appears in a similar retro glow only amplifies the sense that what we’re seeing is grounded in a certain style of supernatural thriller: one which exists on the periphery, enjoyed by few if known by many. A great deal of the production design is similar in that it’s immaculately constructed with clear vision yet its spotless nature is, itself, unreal and produced looking.
This schism isn’t just a visual aspect in the presentation of what could be delusions or in production, it’s in the narrative structure itself. Moneo tells his story across three time periods, with the audience jumping back and forth between them throughout. The first is merely to set up Aurora and her experience (we’ll come back to this shortly), while the other two are used to tell her story by way of juxtaposing her linear journey on top of itself. More specifically, the audience follows Aurora as she meets and joins Elyse, learning about the organization and why Aurora ultimately leaves it while we go with her in her return. Moneo’s intent is to raise questions and tension as each jump forward or back comes with new knowledge, more often for the audience than Aurora, but it’s enough to push us deeper into looking at the universe in a way that we may not normally be comfortable exploring. Cults are considered a negative thing, when in fact, from a dictionary perspective, a cult is “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious” and “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work” which describes just about every major religion in existence. I mention this only because Moneo’s script clearly leans into the notion that Elyse’s motives and organization is nothing more than a grift while leaving enough room that it might be exactly as it appears. This is where the third timeline (the original one) comes in because that moment in time is always with Aurora: her helplessness, her confusion, her desire for clarity, her need to know the truth. In this way, Maneo’s script plays with what the audience brings to Cosmic Dawn. Whether they are predisposed to believe will determine how thrilled, how deceived, or how repelled they react to Aurora’s journey. As Joshua Burge’s Tom keeps saying, nothing is as it appears and, when dealing with the possibility of reality-warping events, can you trust what you see, even if it comes from our protagonist?
If the visual elements and time-hopping don’t keep you a little off-kilter, the score from Alan Howarth (Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live) and the tracks from psychedelic band MGMT will certainly amplify that sense of WTF that comes creeping up your spine. The score and songs are infectious, worming their way into your ears, causing an involuntary bopping that makes you just a little more susceptible to the philosophy spouted by the characters in the films. That Cosmic Dawn ends with the trippy 1976 “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” by Klaatu only amplifies the sense that Cosmic Dawn is either a manifesto or science fiction throwback. There’s an argument for it to be both, but that might be too middling a notion as Moneo has a vested perspective.
All said and done, the concept of Cosmic Dawn is more interesting than some aspects of the execution, but it’s Rowe’s performance, her almost wide-eyed and eager yet reasonably skeptic Aurora, that makes the journey worthwhile. Zegers plays enigmatic well and both Chriqui and Burge play their parts with the right amount of unpredictability, yet without Rowe leading the way, without her presentation of Aurora’s constant grappling with the past, with truth, much of Cosmic Dawn would ring more hollow, more disposable.
If you plan on taking this particular journey during the festival, I encourage you to put your beliefs down for a brief period and just let Moneo’s truth wash over you.
Screening during the 2021 Nightstream Festival.
Head to the official Cosmic Dawn Eventive page to watch the world premiere of the film beginning October 9th, 2021 at 3:45pm.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.