“May you reach the dawn…”
…The universe is full of mysteries. We’ve all sat there under the stars, wondering what’s out there. For some though, they need to feel there is something greater than this earthly existence. In writer/director Jefferson Moneo’s Cosmic Dawn, that need leads down a dangerous path wrought with beauty, manipulation and danger.
Cosmic Dawn centers around Aurora (Camille Rowe), who witnessed the alien abduction of her mother when she was just a child. All grown up and leading a drug-fueled life now, she encounters seemingly friendly bookstore owner Natalie (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who introduces her to Elyse (Antonia Zegers), author of a book called Cosmic Dawn. When Aurora decides to attend a getaway with her new friends isolated deep in the wilderness, she discovers she’s been sucked into an alien-worshipping cult that may have deadly intentions for Aurora.
This film is a trip. But not always in the best ways.
Moneo rips into the minds of the audience right away with an opening sequence detailing the moment Aurora’s mother disappeared. What starts as a calm, sweet scene between a star-gazing mother and daughter explodes into an intense wash of neon purples and pinks, a punk sci-fi score from the always brilliant Alan Howarth that rages and an effect that causes the whole screen to shimmer and sparkle. Moneo isn’t concerned with the film feeling grounded in any way. Cosmic Dawn transports you to a world of trippy madness imbued with a cosmic wonder.
Just underneath the surface of that wonder lurks an ominous dread that follows Aurora everywhere she goes. Before she even meets Elyse, Aurora catches the strange woman following her, captured through POV shots made fuzzy around the edges, as if we’re looking at Elyse through a wormhole. The uneasy feeling grows like a pulsing cyst as Elyse sinks deeper and deeper into this obviously unsafe world. I’d be gone faster than you could say “Jim Jones” the moment Elyse discovers Natalie’s “get together” is actually a secret meeting of Elyse and her fellow nut-bags, each dressed in one specific color relating to their ranking within the group.
But, as annoyed with Aurora as we may be, that’s just not her.
There’s a lack of depth with virtually every character in Cosmic Dawn, but Rowe glows with an empathetic loneliness that allows us to understand Aurora, even if she drives us mad. That’s exactly how Moneo wants us to feel. Cosmic Dawn is reflective of that terror we feel at losing the ones we love to wild conspiracy theories and an inability to see the truth right in front of them, something we can all probably relate to more than ever, thank you very much Trumpism. Through Aurora, Cosmic Dawn takes you on a strange journey through the mind of someone desperate for acceptance. It puts us in the shoes of that lonely soul willing to ignore the signs of manipulation out of their wanting to feel as if they’re not alone.
The experience is alternatively warm and unsettling.
At the heart of it all is Elyse, likely inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology mumbo jumbo and portrayed with a magnetic performance from Zegers. Rowe brings a devastating sadness to the film, but Zegers steals the scene every chance she gets, which is often. To both the advantage and detriment to the film, Elyse and her followers are cloaked in mystery. Living beneath structures reminiscent of Stonehenge in an underground dwelling dubbed “The Mothership”—featuring eye-popping production design from Danielle Sahota that hums with a life of its own—we’re fed vague references to Blood Moons and titles like “The Zena”, but never enough detail to bring any weight to the lore and suck viewers in.
Helping to confuse the audience is Cosmic Dawn’s wonky pacing that moves at the speed of the Earth turning. The film cuts back and forth between Aurora in the present, having escaped the cult’s grasp, and her past indoctrination, with the present timeline adding nothing of interest. Cosmic Dawn consistently gets in the way of its own narrative, disrupting any tension building in the past storyline. To make matters worse, the flipping of timelines alienates the viewer by making them feel as if they’re way behind and know far less than Aurora, which can be a frustrating and disengaging experience.
As for that “tension”, well, Cosmic Dawn fizzles like a fading star. Outside of the occasional intense moment, Moneo’s film relies more on the weird of it all than anything else to maintain interest. I suppose there’s something creepy about random sing-alongs, astral exercises and the constant uttering of “may you reach the dawn,” but mostly it’s all pretty silly—big yikes on some of the digital effects—and leaves you wondering, no, begging, for us to reach the dawn already. Cosmic Dawn is awkward, weird and quite beautiful, but struggles to hypnotize the audience the way Elyse does with her followers.
Gorgeous and heartfelt, there’s a fascinating message at the core of Cosmic Dawn, one that explores ideas of companionship in belief and what the danger in that is or isn’t. But sluggish pacing, vague lore and so many goddamn transition wipes I thought I was losing my mind make this trippy journey an underwhelming one that feels too much like a hokey episode of the Outer Limits and not enough like the colorful, exhilarating madness it intends to be.
Cosmic Dawn arrives on VOD February 11th from Cranked Up Films.
By Matt Konopka