In “The Loneliest Planet,” the sensual thrill of being a stranger in a strange land is what propels two young backpackers to venture into the mountainous Khevi region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Alex (Gael García Bernal) and his fiancée, Nica (Hani Furstenberg), have hired a grizzled guide, Dato (real mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze), to help them negotiate the journey. Except for a brief prelude, and a crucial interlude halfway through, these are pretty much the only people we see for the entire movie.
The wonder is that so much emotional resonance comes through despite these limitations. The dialogue is more than spare – it’s sparse. Long stretches are wordless. For a while, I enjoyed the scruffiness of the trip, the vistas, the affable, going-nowhere ambience. But I also began to wonder just why we were watching this journey. As naturalism it was lovely, but as drama it was somewhat inert. I chalked this restlessness up to my bad Hollywood habits. Why, I wondered, can’t I just sit back and enjoy the ride without expecting (hoping?) it turns into “Deliverance”?
Well, it doesn’t go the “Deliverance” route, but that crucial interlude, in which the three are set upon by mountain people, changes everything. And deepens everything. Now we can see why writer-director Julia Loktev leads up to this scene in such a carefree manner. She wants the shock to hit us in the same way that it hits Alex and Nica.
Loktev loosely based her screenplay on a short story, “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” by Tom Bissell, which was in turn derived from Hemingway’s great story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In all these versions, the man, in this case Alex, responds to threats in a less-than-heroic way that irreparably alienates his woman’s affections.
“The Loneliest Planet” – the title is a sly riff on the “Lonely Planet” guide book ethos – captures how a joyous adventure can suddenly swerve off the tracks in ways that are life-changing. Alex, who is apparently Mexican, and Nica, an American with flame-red hair, are not given much back story. They are meant, I think, to be iconic – innocents abroad. We, in fact, learn more about Dato’s life, and why he only feels free in the mountains.
But Alex and Nica are so recognizable to us that it’s easy to identify with their iconography. In a sense, they are us, or at least our hippie-ish avatars. This is why, when things darken, their distress, which they are barely able to communicate to each other or absorb, hits us, too.
The large flaw in “The Loneliest Planet” is that Loktev stages the confrontation rather confusingly. What is supposed to be cowardice on Alex’s part actually comes across as something far less benighted. This throws off the rest of the movie’s game plan, since Nica, probably unintentionally, comes across as somewhat petulant. If you restage the confrontation in your own mind to conform to what ensues, it all works better.
Loktev, aided by a marvelous score by Richard Skelton, has a great feeling for the mysteriousness of wide-open spaces. There are extraordinary sequences where you feel as if the entire universe is spread out before you in all its harmonious wonder and terror. “The Loneliest Planet” is not a perfect work of art, but it gets at something powerful: the way that life can turn us around in a flash, without warning. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)