Trippy abduction science fiction in Cosmic Dawn (2021)
★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
UFO abductees and true believers gather together in a secretive communal cult, hoping to reconnect with their alien encounter. Cosmic Dawn is more about the cult and its actions than the actual alien encounters, and threads enough menace and strangeness to keep you conflicted about whether these neo-hippies are benign or Jonestown crazy.
Directed by Jefferson Moneo
Are all cults lost cause crazy? Are they all bent on uncovering things that should not be known? By tapping into the dark recesses of the cosmos, are they bringing forth dangerous ideas or even worse, abominations from beyond? That is the struggle that Aurora (Camille Rowe) has to deal with. Her mother was abducted by aliens in the opening sequence, in a beautiful shimmer of color and sparkles, but leaving Aurora abandoned in the woods.
Fast forward to the adult Aurora, a bit of a beautiful hot mess, struggling to cope with her mother’s absence through partying and drug use. She struggles to find answers before stumbling into a bookstore where a helpful and compassionate clerk, Natalie (Emmanuelle Chriqui) guides her to a book titled Cosmic Dawn, written by a woman named Elyse. Natalie is very understanding and invites Aurora to join her group of friends who are followers of the Cosmic Dawn.
When Aurora takes the book home with her she sees a graphic rune that includes a face that is identical to a tattoo (or birthmark) that she has on her arm. This can’t be a coincidence. Aurora decides to go to Natalie’s group gathering, and sure enough, the Cosmic Dawn is gathered up: a friendly cult group who are clothed in colorful pajama like uniforms. Immediate vibes of real life cults Heaven’s Gate, Rajneeshee, Jonestown, or Branch Davidian trappings jump from the screen. Bright red flag warnings!
Like any respectable cult, Elyse (Antonia Zegers) is a compelling and charismatic leader. She also seems to know an awful lot about Aurora, to the point of being creepy. Aurora is taken aback, and recoils a bit from all the overly friendly and really trippy emanations from the group, but she eventually agrees to travel to the Cosmic Dawn retreat for the full experience. She is desperate for answers, and these people seem to be her best chance to get them.
The story then launches into a split timeline, one that follows her to the rural forested compound, where the Cosmic Dawn sings, dances, builds, and awaits the arrival of their alien ambassadors. All of the members have been taken before, or have been touched somehow by a visitation from beyond. It’s paradise, but one that certainly seems forced, and we’ve seen this scenario before, and usually, what is idyllic on the outside is rotten on the inside. IS that the case here too?
The other story thread that jumps four years into the future where she is now a cynical non-believer back in society, and wanting to be free from her experiences. The two timelines weave over them selves in a tidy bit of storytelling, until Aurora and fellow former cultist and cynic, Tom (Joshua Berg) head back to the compound to force some answers and confront what appears to be some dark forces at work.
Cosmic Dawn has some uneasy moments, particularly if the inner workings of cults makes you squirm. The film does a fine job of suggesting something sinister but still allowing for this group to be a peaceful group of hippies who want to catch a ride on the next ship to Alpha Centauri (or wherever the next stop is).
This is Jefferson Moneo’s second feature film directorial effort, after his debut with the indie western Big Muddy (2014), and he also wrote the script. The plot is easy enough to follow, even with the checkboard time jumps of the plot. The editing of the film is really well done, and the story beats click and you are able to follow Aurora’s psychological journey easily, which really is the throughline of the movie. There are enough twists and turns so that even though the story is quite linear (even with the time jumps) that you can’t see the plot markers more than a couple steps in front of you.
As creepy as the cult is, this is not a horror movie at its core. It does have strong science fiction elements as well as a thriller aspects… but this first and formost is a drama. Camille Rowe shows great range in her portrayal of Aurora. She subtly is able to show the fractured and naiive Aurora who is still searching for answers, and the slightly oder more driven and focused version of her, so much so that the time jumps are clearly conveyed without etraneous exposition. Her damaged goods version of Aurora is particularly well done, and she portrays her skepticism about the cult while at the same time allowing Aurora’s desire for acceptance and answers to override her doubts.
The supporting cast also does a fine job. Zegers is unnerving and appopriately intimidating as the cult leader, while also conveying a magnetism needed for leadership. Chiquiri transforms Natalie from the helpful best friend and confidant into a deteriorating husk of a cultist gone too far. Berg’s portrayal of Tom is the stand-in for the audience, an outsider who is observing the goings on of the cult from the inside and is dubious of the whole affair, but puts up with it because of his love for Natalie. And lastly, Philip Granger plays a critical role as Dieter, the loyal and devoted footsoldier who is weird enough just by himself to paint the whole cult as off kilter.
I did find the story, lacking a little gravitas, however. There is a general lack of urgency and weight to the story. The cult isn’t quite dangerous enough to warrant outright dread, and it isn’t quite loopy enough to be intriguing. It does feel like a ’70s era hippie commune, with mostly benign intent… the armed guard (singular) excepted. The idea of the alien abductors is also strongly underplayed, and despite the fact that all of these cultists have had a close encounter with beings from the cosmos, nobody talks about it, or what it means. It really is a MacGuffin.
What it boils down to then, is that this is a story about relationships, trust, and faith. Not exactly super-compelling for a horror audience, so my rating is largely based upon that expectation. It does a good job of exploring the intricacies of relationships, but it dances around (quite literally) what probably should be the central focus of the movie. This is about alien worshiping cultists. And perhaps the feel-good drivel that Elyse espouses, and her skill at telepathy, and the use of hallucinogens is all that the group needs, but as the audience, I think they deserved more.
The art direction and particularly the musical arrangements by Alan Howarth and MGMT are expertly done, and some of MGMT’s best work since Oracular Spectacular. The sets are provacative and interesting, and the song “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” by Klaatu is a serious earworm of a song, mesmerizing and trippy. It also is a spot-on poigniant thesis for the conclusion of the film… a stroke of musical insight and perfect genius for this context.
Cosmic Dawn is a gloriously trippy piece of art, bolstered by fine acting, costumes, music, and set design. It just lacks a bit of heft and presence in the central story. It does succeed as a re-examination of the nature of cults, and manages to re-set your expectations of oddball crypto fringe groups. Think of it as a bantamweight version of a mashup between Midsommar and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and really, that’s not a bad place to be. For fans of X-Files plots and alien abduction stories, this will be a satisfying watch.
Cosmic Dawn is not rated, but would probably be closer to PG-13 than R, for language, hallucinogen use, and gun violence. It was showing on the 2021 Nightstream Film Festival, and is scheduled to be released streaming sometime in the first quarter of 2022.
There is no trailer yet for Cosmic Dawn, but when it does arrive we will include it in this post.