Nick Attin’s film ‘Tomb’ journeys into the dangerous unknown to find strength in connection

Nick Attin’s film ‘Tomb’ journeys into the dangerous unknown to find strength in connection

Writer Cadwell Turnbull on Nick Attin’s subversive film ‘Tomb,” presented as part of the “Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized” festival

The film opens with a quote: “This reality is not what it dreams.”

And then a scene: a brightly lit beach, an ocean, calm waves beating against the shore. A middle-aged Black man stands on this beach, wearing a white shirt that glows bright in the sunlight, two wooden-bead chains around his neck.

All is tranquil, until a shaking black glove enters the shot. The music, once melodically pleasant, tips into menace, and the shot pans out to reveal a figure in a suit struggling for … air? The man in white, now sitting on the log, turns to observe the figure.

But he does not rise to help. Instead, he grins and returns to his view.

Cut to the opening credits, and the plunge into the wild ride that is “Tomb,” written, directed and produced by Nick Attin and presented by A Runaway Colony Productions (a company name that makes my point for me).

Still from Nick Attin’s “Tomb.”

Broadly speaking, “Tomb” is about an expedition into deep space that turns sideways. Two pilots, Nelson Obatala (Kearn Samuel) and Charles Mercer (Gregory Pollonais), are the brilliant individuals tasked with this mission of discovery. What they find out in the black of space is both strange and familiar: a journey out into the dangerous unknown that ultimately brings them right back to themselves.

The film is high sci-fi, edging into horror, before emerging on the other side with hope. “Tomb” is also very philosophical, with multiple characters taking the time to puzzle over some of our biggest existential questions. It was these moments that pulled me in: when Mercer discusses his faith in people over higher powers with a journalist (which comes across as beautifully spiritual), or when Obatala, realizing that his AI co-pilot M.I.L.O. (lovingly and maniacally played by Conrad Parris) may actually be trying to kill him, quietly muses on the AI’s potential superiority to humans, saying, “You’re completely certain of who made you.”

Still from Nick Attin’s “Tomb.”

There are also some beautiful character moments. Obatala’s love for his wife Kara (Jair Massiah) and daughter Yemaya (Amanda McIntyre) propels him through the entire narrative. It is tangible faith in closer, “lesser” powers that keeps Obatala and Mercer from falling victim to humankind’s hubris.

This theme of the divine in the familiar comes through with perfect clarity. In voiceover, Obatala’s daughter Yemaya points us directly to the story’s heart. “Return unto me,” she says, and there’s no denying its obvious religious parallels and narrative weight.

“Tomb” does have commonalities with science fiction films we’ve seen before. The clearest parallel is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (based on Arthur C. Clarke’s equally influential novel of the same name), with M.I.L.O.’s similarities to HAL (though M.I.L.O. has more tricks up his sleeve) and in “Tomb”’s trippier psychedelic sequences. And perhaps some of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” shows up by way of “Tomb”’s interest in love as a cosmic power and its playfulness with time and space. And then there’s the sharp turn to horror in the third act of “Sunshine” (directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland), which “Tomb” also provides, though in a much different way and with much more lead-up.

Still from Nick Attin’s “Tomb.”

Despite making these connections, “Tomb” actually doesn’t fit neatly in anything I’ve seen before. The film just feels different in its soul. Watching this was such a delightful surprise because of its prioritization of a Caribbean perspective, which is never centered in space exploration movies. And I honestly believe this particular message of cosmic love hits harder because of this fruitful context.

The men that go to space are from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The nation’s motives for going to space are not the same as the Western-centric motivations we usually get either. This future Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is compelled by self-affirmation rooted in their complicated past with colonialism. Their pride has been in self-actualization against a history of subjugation and they want to take that same spirit to the stars.

What is surprising is the self-critique the narrative offers. In some respects, the nation’s goals are spurred on by a profound insecurity young nations (that were once former colonies) feel uniquely, desperate to prove themselves on a global stage against bigger, louder powers. However, and in deliberate contrast, Obatala and Mercer are both more interested in caring for their people over proving themselves against the loud voices in the room.

Still from Nick Attin’s “Tomb.”

M.I.L.O., the expedition’s navigator-AI, is an invention claimed by the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is the reason why the nation has dibs on this particular pilot mission. But the film immediately casts the republic’s boast in a murky light. We eventually find out more about M.I.L.O.’s origins and in that revelation we find another warning against grand nebulous powers. The underlying message is profoundly anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist. Be careful who and what you worship, particularly if it deifies itself. Believe in what you can touch with your hands. Believe in people. Believe in those you love and who love you.

Afrofuturism is about more than people of color in space. Beyond that cosmetic challenge to status quo narratives, it is about bringing Black and brown perspectives to far-flung locales. Embedded within that gift — and it is a gift to have these perspectives in our most speculative art forms — there is an argument for remembering the humanity of each individual life against the vastness of space and existence.

“Return unto us” is the call, and whether the loud ones in the room heed it, the call remains, repeats, echoes.

Top Image: Still from Nick Attin's "Tomb."