Being the first Afro/cyberpunk musical to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Neptune Frost’s reputation precedes it. Shot on location in Rwanda, Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s debut feature is a breathtaking achievement, a standalone movie that feels like it could spawn a new genre. The plot follows Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), a young laborer at a coltan mine in an unnamed African country. After his brother Tekno is beaten to death by a guard, Matalusa joins a revolutionary movement against the mine bosses (referred to only as “The Authority”). This is where he meets Neptune, a gender-toggling hacker portrayed by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja. Their rebellion takes form in a massive computer hack that brings the exploitation of the workers to a global audience.
The way Neptune Frost blurs sociopolitical upheaval that is not necessarily Rwandan or Burundian (but still speaks directly to the last century and a half of Western domination of African interests) is one of its core strengths. It’s not hard to see tropes from better-financed sci-fi/fantasy properties in this digital mosaic. Matalusa’s evolution into the hacker persona MartyrLoserKing has shades of the “chosen one” trope that’s been ubiquitous post-Star Wars, and the confluence of sexual and political awakenings harkens back to The Matrix.
But unlike those movies, Neptune Frost obstinately refuses a conventional narrative arc. Its real subject is the transhumanist utopia implied by Matalusa and Neptune’s romance, as well as the exploitation suffered on the ground — coltan being essential to manufacturing smartphone and computer components. Williams and Uzeyman don’t waste time probing the motivations of the bosses or the workers. Their outrage is a given, and the images — blotchy, digital, handheld — speak for themselves, often with a harsh and handmade majesty courtesy of production designer Antoine Nshimiyimana and costumer Cedric Mizero.
As a slam poet, rapper, actor, and performance artist, Williams has made a career of bucking whatever broader trends are besieging pop culture, so it’s been especially sweet to see this film roll out across the country to unanimous critical acclaim. But some of the ecstatic reception feels almost defensive, as though the movie is being celebrated simply for existing, and for being so sui generis. As a viewing experience, Neptune Frost treads the line between hypnotic and repetitive. Some will find the movie poetic; others may simply be driven mad by its many callbacks to earlier songs and phrases.
Beneath its Wong-Kar-Wai-like sense of shifting, dreamlike unease, what’s most interesting about Neptune Frost is the way it addresses ecological and political crises with blunt force. Hopefully it may help more people recognize the costs of present-day capitalism, albeit through the scrim of so-called “science fiction.” At a fraction of the usual cost, Uzeyman and Williams have performed a radical intervention upon a genre that has been massacred in recent years by the “cinematic universes” of Disney, Marvel, and so on. The movie is also a referendum — not on the meager trickle of African cinema that makes its way to the United States, but rather on the preponderance of images (many of them engineered in Western documentary labs) that depict the continent as a barren wasteland. In its most startling moments, Neptune Frost is a vivid reminder of the potential for new visions of old catastrophes.
Neptune Frost is now playing in select theaters.