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Sundance Film Festival’s Lineup Looks Bleak

Psychologists say that works of fiction are a product of the time they’re made in. According to them, the reason so many superhero movies have been made during the past twenty years is that the general public needs escapism to deal with the horrors of 21st-century life. Many of the science fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s were thinly-veiled metaphors for the Cold War. What a film might appear to be on a surface level might not be the same as the message it’s sending when you peel back the layers.

With that in mind, any films made during 2020 were always likely to be bleak because 2020 was bleak. It was the most trying year that most of us can remember, and we’re still not clear of its impact here in early 2021. That’s reflected in this year’s Sundance Film Festival which will, for obvious reasons, be conducted as a virtual festival rather than the enormous party it usually is. The festival has already got underway at the time of writing and might even have concluded by the time you read this article, but we already know what the most-talked-about movies will be. They cover a range of different genres, but there’s a common theme that unites them all – detachment and despair.

When we come to look back on 2020 and 2021, a decade or more from now, we’ll likely use the films and television shows of the era as a reference guide. The films that have been highlighted at Sundance this year might be among the most commonly-cited source material. Here are those (likely) highlights, along with a brief overview of what you can expect from them if you’d like to give them a look.

How It Ends

Titles don’t get much more literal than this Daryl Wein movie, which stars Zoe Lister-Jones and Olivia Wilde. Not to be confused with the 2018 film of the same name, this is a dark comedy set on a planet Earth that knows the end is coming. There’s an asteroid on the way, and nothing can be done to stop it. Escape is impossible, survival is extremely unlikely, and the world’s population has no options other than to make peace with their situation and prepare for the end. That might sound like an unlikely backdrop for jokes, but humans are good at finding laughter in the darkness. We’ve had more than enough post-apocalyptic films in recent years. A pre-apocalyptic film is a welcome break from the norm.


The world faces a threat of a different kind in “Users,” which most certainly isn’t played for laughs. Rather than tackling one existential threat, this movie tackles two at once. Viewed mainly through the eyes of a child, “Users” tells us the tale of a young person born into a dying world that’s approaching a critical point in terms of global warming but also tackles the creeping fear that technology is encroaching into every area of our lives. In this case, the child rejects its mother in favor of a caretaker robot. Is it far fetched? Probably, but the technology it showcases is very real, and so are the dangers it seeks to underline.

Strawberry Mansion

“The Matrix” was once the benchmark when it comes to depictions of dystopia in science-fiction, but the original film turned into a blockbuster franchise and lost its original edge. “The Matrix” became a brand that led to videogames, action figures, and licensed products at online slots websites. Even now, so many years after the original movie, there’s a third sequel on the way, and websites like still host the casino game and make money from it. We don’t know what the long-term prospects of “Strawberry Mansions” are, but we feel fairly confident in saying that it’s never going to be monetized and marketed as an online slots attraction. In the future created by this film, your subconscious is monitored, your dreams are audited, and crimes committed in dreams have consequences. One of those consequences is that you’ll be taxed based on your dream activities. No, we’re not joking.


We can’t decide whether the premise of this film is ultra-clever or just ultra-cynical. It’s “Romeo and Juliet,” but for the modern age. You could argue that the idea has been done before, but the last time we saw it on the big screen was in the Baz Luhrmann film that starred Leonardo DiCaprio. That was twenty-five years ago, and the modern-day setting it inhabited might as well be in black and white as far as anyone under thirty is concerned. In this version of the tale, our two Shakespearian protagonists never even meet in the flesh. Instead, their entire relationship with all of its associated complications is played out through messaging apps and social media. If that isn’t a metaphor for trying to conduct a relationship during a lockdown, we don’t know what is.

The Pink Cloud

This movie won’t win any prizes for subtlety, but don’t let that ‘cloud’ your judgment when it comes to deciding whether to watch it or not. The plot focuses on two people who find themselves forced to take shelter together after a strange and deadly cloud settles over their city. The dangers posed by the cloud lead to a city-wide quarantine (no prizes for guessing where the writer’s inspiration came from) and pushes our protagonists into a high-pressure situation where relationship developments that would usually take months are compressed into a few short days. It’s a commentary on what this extended period of lockdown and quarantine has done to interpersonal relationships, and the statement it makes is cleverly put.

We didn’t expect to find much sweetness and light at this year’s Sundance, and so we haven’t come away from its higher-profile offerings disappointed. If there were ever a festival that was “of its time,” this is it. Enjoy it for what it is, and let’s hope that by the time Sundance 2022 rolls around, there will have been cause for optimism among the filmmakers of the world again. One major film festival with such dark subject matter is fine, but we’re not sure we’d want to subject ourselves to an extended series of them.

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