Here’s the thing about dreams. They’re almost always boring to think about unless they’re your own, or you’re a therapist who’s being paid to analyze them. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped Carlson Young from expanding her acclaimed 2018 short into this feature film, which the debuting filmmaker says was inspired by a recurring dream and the 17th century science fiction novel of the same name by Margaret Cavendish. Although The Blazing World boasts visual stylishness to spare, viewers will be hard-pressed to enjoy going down this cinematic rabbit hole.
That’s not a random reference; the film, which Young also co-wrote (with Pierce Brown) and stars in, clearly also uses Alice in Wonderland as an inspiration. Here, the young woman who embarks on the phantasmagorical journey is Margaret (Young, Scream: The TV Series), first seen as a little girl. One day, while playing with her twin sister outside her family’s palatial country home, she’s distracted by a violent fight between her parents (Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw) and doesn’t notice her sister falling into the pool, where she drowns.
The Blazing World
The Bottom Line
A long, strange, but not terribly compelling trip.
That traumatic day is also the first time she encounters the film’s version of the White Rabbit, played by Udo Kier. And as anyone familiar with Kier’s extensive career knows, it’s not advisable to follow most of the characters he plays. Especially, in this case, when he tells Margaret, “I am the darkest tree in the forest of light. Call me Leonard.” (Well, not Leonard, actually. His character’s name is Lained. But Kier has a bit of an accent.)
Cut to years later, when Margaret is a troubled, self-destructive college student obsessed with the idea that her sister is still alive and in an alternate dimension. When her parents tell her they’re about to sell her childhood home, she returns to find the house and their marriage in shambles. After comforting herself with recreational drugs taken with friends, she finds herself in another dimension, signaled by CGI effects and elaborate set decorations (kudos to production designer Rodney Becker). She once again encounters Lained, who offers himself as a guide and explains that if she succeeds in conquering a series of challenges she’ll be reunited with her sister.
It’s all visually striking, from the giant glowing red orb to the wandering in the desert to the portal suspended in midair to the encounter with a masked woman in a cottage who offers her tea. “It’s not often I have visitors,” the woman comments. Much of the sequence is, not coincidentally, accompanied by music from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (in which another young woman encounters magical phenomena).
While the filmmaker manages to achieve a lot on a small budget, the trippy, abstract nature of the proceedings quickly proves tedious, at least for those viewers whose perceptions haven’t already been altered. At the very least, you can amuse yourself spotting the visual references to other films; let’s just say that Guillermo del Toro, among other directors, should be flattered.
I haven’t seen the short that inspired this film, but it’s easy to imagine that the material held up far better at 12 than 99 minutes. There’s plenty of imagination on display in The Blazing World, but it’s buried amidst the narrative and stylistic self-indulgence that assumes we’ll be interested in going on this very strange and ultimately enervating journey.