It’s been ages since anyone built a complex sci-fi universe fillled with far-reaching mythology and imaginative threats. “The Wanting Mare” tries to get there by starting with a small dose. Writer-director Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s ambitious debut plays like the tiniest sliver of a vast universe, an intimate futuristic drama painted into the corner of some giant canvas yet to be seen. Seeing as most sci-fi franchises on movies and TV stem from existing IP, “The Wanting Mare” scores points on ingenuity alone as the most intriguing form of world-building in the genre since “The Matrix,” though it begs for a bigger picture. Frustrating and immersive in equal doses, Bateman’s slow-burn drama seems content to show us around, with the occasional conflict as an added bonus.
For that reason, some may shrug it off as a half-baked bore. In truth, “The Wanting Mare” begs for deeper readings, and the most fascinating aspect of the movie comes from the way this visibly low-budget enterprise gets away with suggesting so much more than it puts onscreen. Bateman roots his story in a post-apocalyptic world called Anmaere, where wild horses roam a lonely island north of the grimy city of Whithren. Each year, a ship takes the horses somewhere far away called Levithen — “the colder place,” for some unexplained reason — and locals work overtime to snag tickets aboard, in the hopes of traveling to a better life.
North of Whithren, wild horses roam the land, as a generation of women contemplate the murky past and an uncertain future. Not much happens beyond that, but with its vivid, enigmatic backdrop and detail-laden atmosphere, Bateman creates the immersive impression of a complex narrative in media res. That alone begs serious consideration: After all, “Star Wars” did it, too, albeit in a more consumer-friendly fashion.
Bateman, by contrast, shows more interest in immersing viewers in the feel of his world rather than rapid-fire exposition. (Imagine if George Lucas kicked things off by spending 30 minutes on the romance between Anakin and Padmé, explaining all that Jedi stuff in another movie.) “The Wanting Mare” hints at a complex history from its opening moments, when a woman dies in childbirth, shortly after telling her newborn daughter that “there was a world before and the dream is what’s left.”
Years later, that child has become the wistful 18-year-old Moira (Jordan Monaghan), who’s enmeshed in a solitary existence defined by the sense of better times that preceded her. In the midst of her drab routine, she comes across hunky criminal Lawrence (Bateman), rescues him from a bullet wound, and tries to use that as leverage to get herself a ticket on the aforementioned boat.
Needless to say, that scheme falls by the wayside when the pair falls in love, as “The Wanting Mare” offers up a soapy romantic two-hander for a rather tedious passage that slows down the underlying mystery of their situation. It’s not without purpose, though: Where many storytellers might rush along to raise the stakes, Bateman lingers in the textures of his unusual setting. Even as the bond between Moira and Lawrence doesn’t fully connect, it allows the movie to develop unique kind of lyrical tone that’s both bleak and romantic at once. The drama shifts between Malickian landscapes of the island, where the eerie cityscape shimmers from afar, and the shadowy, “Blade Runner”-lite setting of Withren itself, where secrets lurk in every whispered exchange.
Eventually, Lawrence makes an ambitious effort to reconnect with his fellow outlaws and score Moira a ticket out of town, but “The Wanting Mare” once again refuses to settle for a single conflict. A few more bullet wounds later and the movie flies forward in time once again, following a new set of characters, and eventually circling back with aged versions of the ones we’ve met before (now played by Christine Kellog-Darrin and Josh Clark) as they look back on their broken lives. In the middle of that, a young woman named Eirah (Yasamin Keshtkar) endures the same challenge of seeking that elusive ticket to Levithen, struggling through a similar maze of futility at every turn. The weary inhabitants of Anmaere are stuck in stasis; it may take several more installments before Bateman explains how any of them might break that pattern.
But there’s little doubt that somewhere out there, a better land awaits them. Bateman (whose visual effects credits include Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” and David Lowery’s upcoming “The Green Knight”) builds out subtle details that cement the icy backdrop in an authentic foundation. The colors are all foggy blues and browns; the sky blurs into a chalky haze; the ocean separating the two locales melts into the dark of night. Using whatever computer wizardry was accessible at his fingertips, the filmmaker has crafted delicate hints of a complex universe, while these sad-faced survivors persist as lonely castaways eager to get out. This kind of hushed, low-key story certainly wouldn’t be the most obvious place to start an epic, but it’s a captivating chunk of mood and personality begging for future chapters. Here’s hoping Bateman finds a way to tell them.
A Gravitas Ventures release, “The Wanting Mare” is now available on VOD.