Four years ago, Pavel Khvaleev burst onto the scene with III - The Ritual, a nifty little no-budget horror/fantasy film that served as a perfect showcase for his (team's) talent. I've been eagerly awaiting the completion of his second feature ever since. It took a while, but Khvaleev's newest is finally here. Involution is a sci-fi/thriller with a strong dramatic undercurrent, and I'm glad to say it's a solid confirmation of Khvaleev's talent. While probably a little too ambitious to appeal to a broader range of genre fans, people with a soft spot for unique cinema are sure to find something of interest here.
The world of genre cinema is filled with ambitious people, trying to get their foot in the door while making films on a shoestring budget. But only a select few can actually claim they've made a solid case for themselves. When I watched III - The Ritual, I was well impressed, especially considering the film's microscopic budget. Khvaleev has surrounded himself with a group of skilled people, who are able to deliver quality output on talent and passion alone. Now, making an impressive first feature is hard enough as it is, but following it up with a second one that proves it wasn't just a lucky shot is truly rare.
Horror is a convenient genre for low-budget cinema of course. It has some of the most loyal fans, who are willing to watch almost anything. Short run times are acceptable, intricate details can be cloaked in darkness and the 'less is more' credo is almost a genre niche in itself. Sci-fi is a lot harder to do on a budget, but that didn't keep Khvaleev from trying. Of course there are ways to construct a futuristic world without doing elaborate sets, futuristic designs and an overload of CG, but you can't just weasel your way out of every sci-fi element either, unless your goal is to massively disappoint genre fans. Khvaleev found a good balance between both worlds here, showing a not too distant but believable future with enough futuristic elements to keep people's sci-fi cravings fulfilled.
The plot revolves around a world in decline. Humanity has reach its evolutionary peak and people are slowly devolving (hence the name) into the predatory primates they started out as. Hamming works for a firm that tries to keep a tab on the worst offenders, but it quickly dawns on him that his efforts are mostly in vain. When Hamming's girlfriend leaves him and stops contacting him shortly after, he decides to face this new world in a desperate attempt to track her down. What Hamming doesn't know is that one of his patients is on his tail, hoping to take revenge for failing to cure him.
When you lack the budget to do big scale and epic sci-fi vistas, you have to rely on aesthetic quality to make a lasting impact. While this sounds like a hurdle and/or downgrade, it almost always ends up being an asset, especially when you have the talent on board. Khvaleev already showed that he was capable of some first-class visuals in his first film, Involution further cements that impression. Solid camera work, beautiful and smart use of color, superb costume designs and very nice use of CG turn Involution into quite a looker. The visuals give the film a unique identity you can't buy with money alone.
The soundtrack may be a little less expressive than you'd expect from someone who's also making a name for himself as an electronic music producer, but Khvaleev's first-hand experience in the music scene does benefit the film a lot. The soundtrack is a perfect guide for the atmosphere, dictating rhythm and pacing and building up tension where necessary. While I'd love to see Khvaleev take it a few steps further still, a well-rounded soundtrack like this is exactly what a small genre film like Involution needs.
The cast is probably the weakest part of the film. While the main characters do a solid job, secondary parts are all over the place. In their own right, some of the more exaggerated performances aren't that bad, but there just isn't enough overall coherence. At times this hurts the world building, which is a small but definite set-back for a sci-fi film. Not enough to kill the atmosphere or take you out of the film entirely, but if you are someone who values strong performances this could be a deal breaker.
There were a few moments where I felt the film was losing its footing, but whenever I got the impression that Involution was getting a little too ambitious for its own good, Khvaleev followed it up with a scene that blew me away. The further in, the better it gets too, with some stellar dream sequences and an impressive build-up towards the finale. People looking for a clean and conclusive ending should be prepared for some loose ends, but personally I liked the ending a lot. The core story of the film gets its resolution, while there's still plenty of room for contemplation afterwards.
Involution is not a film without faults, but it's an amazing accomplishment nonetheless. To deliver a quality sci-fi with so few means requires talent and dedication, and it's clear that Khvaleev and his team have both. Involution is a superbly styled, impeccably scored, intriguing and challenging sci-fi that easily outdoes the majority of its peers with just a fraction of their budget. It's a film that stands out in an over-saturated genre and makes you long for more. Hopefully Khvaleev won't let us wait another four years before his next one arrives.