Jefferson Moneo’s second feature is uneven, if ambitiously provocative.
While UFOs and the various, myriad conspiracy theories that formed around sightings, encounters, and abductions have faded from public consciousness through an apparent lack of evidence and changing interests (including new and, in some cases, far more destructive conspiracy theories), they remained an object(s) of lifelong fascination for writer-director Jefferson Moneo (The Big Muddy). Moneo decided to channel that borderline obsession into his second feature-length film, Cosmic Dawn, an uneven, if ambitiously provocative, lo-fi science-fiction thriller centered around an eerie UFO cult modeled on the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult that left almost 40 members dead by mass suicide more than two decades ago.
It’s probably not coincidental or accidental that Moneo opens Cosmic Dawn not in the present day, but in June, 1997 (the same year the Heaven’s Gate “ascended” aboard a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet), as a preteen girl, Aurora (Rachel Pellinen), witnesses a neon-drenched, psychedelic light show that permanently leaves her motherless, her mother abducted by extraterrestrials. The experience leaves the preteen Aurora so traumatized that twenty years later, a grown-up Aurora (Camille Rowe, The Deep House) hasn’t been able to reconcile herself to her mother’s unusual disappearance or her presumed death. Instead, Aurora drifts from nightclub to nightclub, accepting illicit drugs from strangers in sunglasses, and dancing to electronic music until the combination of sundry mind- and mood-altering substances and her own exhaustion temporarily lead her to the edge of oblivion and back again.
Despite how little we learn about Aurora in the intervening years, it’s abundantly clear her mental, emotional, and physical state make her an easy mark for the UFO-centered cult, “Cosmic Dawn,” that welcomes her with open arms, first through the form of Natalie (Emmanuelle Chriqui), the world’s most generous used-bookstore owner and cult member, and later though the guise of the singularly named Elyse (Antonia Zegers), the cult’s nominal leader and the revered author of the self-published, leather-bound tome (also called “Cosmic Dawn”) that Natalie eagerly shares with Aurora on her first visit to the bookstore. Almost immediately, Natalie invites Aurora to a cult members only meeting to meet the rest of the cult and, of course, Elyse, a charismatic figure who speaks with the calming voice and demeanor of a therapist, the faux-wisdom of a cult leader with all the answers to Aurora’s unanswered existential questions, and the manipulative mastery of a narcissistic sociopath.
Aurora’s vulnerability, however, doesn’t mean she falls immediately for whatever Natalie and Elyse are trying to sell her. Moneo’s well-rounded script gives Aurora just enough agency, along with sufficient levels of doubt, that she’s immediately duped by Natalie and Elyse. Moneo takes a more welcome, deliberate, methodical approach, depicting Aurora’s staggered descent into (almost) acceptance through a series of borderline unsettling scenes. He also cross cuts between two different time periods and two different Auroras, one in the “present” shown in the opening scenes and another four years later, distinguishing them via old-school vertical wipes, Aurora’s hair style, and a marked difference in Rowe’s body language and speech patterns. In the “present,” she’s nervous, edgy, uncomfortable in her own skin. The “four years later” Aurora seems to have shed those qualities, adopting a harder, more bitter edge that hints at a breaking point between Aurora and the cult without giving us the why, the where, or the how (until much later).
Eventually, Moneo sidesteps the intriguing, destabilizing ambiguity of the first half of the film (Aurora’s continuing vulnerability, the cult’s gaslighting, emphasis on isolation, and authoritarian rules used to facilitate Elyse’s control over the group) for a more definitive, ultimately unsatisfying ending. By giving Aurora both the answer she wants and the answer she needs, eliminating any ambiguity in the process, Moneo delivers a straightforwardly reductive answer that’s one part 2001: A Space Odyssey, one Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and one part Contact (i.e., three parts derivative, no parts original). Still, a missed opportunity or emotionally flat ending isn’t enough to completely undermine everything that preceded the final, pre-credits scenes. Ultimately, Cosmic Dawn works better as an insightful case study in cult mechanics than as a standalone science-fiction/thriller.
Cosmic Dawn opens theatrically on Friday, February 11th.