There’s a fundamental disconnect in Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s latest film, Before We Vanish, but it’s not occurring within the world of the film. The disconnect is between the film and the advertising. If you watch the trailer (and, to a lesser extent, the poster), Before We Vanish looks like a high octane, bloody alien invasion film, complete with indestructible aliens, gunfights, and drone strikes.
These elements are all actually in the film, but the violence and action are, in reality, a relatively minor component of the two hour+ film’s runtime. The reality is that Before We Vanish is a quiet, contemplative film about humanity and what makes us human.
Kurosawa opens the film with a flourish – a bloody shot across the bow that leaves a teenage girl wandering dazed down a busy highway. She’s covered in blood and the home she left behind is filled with bodies. It’s a captivating start, but hardly representative of what follows; the next action sequence doesn’t occur until nearly an hour later.
Before We Vanish focuses on three alien invaders: Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) and Shinji (Ryûhei Matsuda). They are the advanced reconnaissance team sent to Earth to collect information on the human race and, when they have fulfilled their mission, send word back to commence the invasion. To blend in, they take over the bodies of real people, but the individual’s personality is lost in the process, which makes the aliens seem forgetful, simple or infantilized. As a result, they either kill or harm nearby humans or they require the services of a guide, someone that they won’t hurt in exchange for help acclimatizing.
One of the film’s most fascinating ideas is the process by which the aliens collect information: they ask a victim to visualize a complicated concept (love, work, self) and then, with the touch of a finger to the head, they steal it, leaving the human befuddled and devoid of the concept. To the aliens, this is simply data collection; to humans, it’s a terrifying loss of memory and identity.
Before We Vanish excels when it explores these kinds of weighty moral quandries. There’s a marked distinction between each of the three aliens – Akira has a short temper and violent tendencies, Amano is a casual jokester and Shinji, who spends the majority of the film isolated from the other two, is the most human, courtesy of the grounding influence of his wife, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa). Having distinct personalities makes the aliens more interesting because they interact with the humans in very different ways, thereby reinforcing the film’s message about valuing the uniqueness of each human and their individual experiences.
While Kurosawa’s script isn’t afraid of tackling these meatier philosophical topics, the more than two hour run time can feel incredibly laborious (particularly if the trailer is top of mind since it literally includes every single action sequence in the film). There’s a curious lack of urgency to the film’s pacing, as well as a range of genres; this is not unusual for Japanese films, but viewers who are primarily accustomed to North American films may find the languid, relaxed pace a bit sluggish and repetitive. There’s no mystery to the alien’s plans, no escalation in the threat; Before We Vanish is uninterested in preventing the attack or fighting back. Instead, Kurosawa’s film is interested in exploring how an awareness of this information affects a small subset of people and informs their journey. In its heart, Before We Vanish is a drama first and foremost.
With that said, Kurosawa has had a long and storied career for a reason, and the film looks great. Key sequences such as a clandestine meeting between reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), Amano’s guide, and the head of a strange anti-alien militia or a subtly chilling conversation about the meaning of love in a church filled with children are all exceedingly well done. His choice of musical cues are inspired (for example, jaunty comedic beats accompany Akira on her bloody walk in the opening). Even little moments stand out, such as when Narumi discovers her husband’s powers when he confronts her sexist boss. The encounter is visually styled to dimmer lighting, tighter framing and a dramatic score. When the action does arrive – sporadically – it is exciting and provides a nice burst of adrenaline. Alas, these moments are so few and far between that the time in between can feel anticlimactic.
Before We Vanish is worth checking out. Just be sure to go into it expecting a slow, contemplative human drama and not the gory, thrilling alien invasion hinted at in the poster and trailer.