Fantastic Fest Review: THE ANTENNA Has No Signal

This surreal dystopian sci-fi is too ponderous to be truly damning.

Maybe I would appreciate The Antenna more if I studied the modern Turkish political climate, but there’s very little about the film that compels me to do that. Without a doubt, Orcun Behram’s surreal sci-fi horror film has Big Things™ to say: its concept is structured around an apartment complex in which every floor represents a different social stratum, its world is populated with ideological mouthpieces instead of actual people, and its villains are the shadows of black-booted government officials. But unfortunately, The Antenna’s expansive collection of allegories is too labyrinthine to connect with anyone but the diehard agitators.

Ihsan Önal plays Mehmet, The Antenna’s ostensible protagonist and the superintendent of the aforementioned Apartment Complex of Literary Significance. Despite the building’s decaying infrastructure, the government orders the installation of a new television antenna instead of letting Mehmet make some much-needed repairs. After a worker fatally falls off the building’s roof while installing the antenna, a toxic black sludge mysteriously appears. The sludge starts as a dark drop on the tip of the antenna before it oozes its way down the apartment complex’s floors, growing and corrupting everything in its path. (Metaphor!)

Once we get past the elliptical and admittedly evocative introduction of the building, its residents, and the sludge, The Antenna falls back into a tedious—almost slasher-like—structure. It goes like this: First, we’re shown a character or group of characters faffing about in their apartment. Then, the film blatantly telegraphs their weakness/moral failing (like vanity or consumerism.) Then, we’re shown signs that the black sludge has infiltrated their household, and the characters don’t notice the sludge because they’re busy with their weakness/moral failing. Then we get a drawn-out suspense sequence in which the character inevitably collides into the sludge. And then we see how the sludge corrupts them in a way that thematically coheres with their weakness/moral failing. Wash, rinse, repeat until the whole building is enveloped in sludge.

Breaking up these repetitive sludge sequences are scenes where Mehmet the superintendent ineffectually investigates the apartment’s mishaps and neglects to take actions that would prevent further harm. It’s not because he’s a bad guy, the movie wants us to believe. Mehmet can’t act because he’s powerless against the shortsighted, uncaring government regime. Left to his own devices, Mehmet is altruistic enough to offer one of his teenage residents enough money to escape her dismal situation.

The problem is that once The Antenna moves into its tedious second act, Mehmet becomes such a static non-entity that his inner conflict isn’t worth exploring. His decision at the end to finally take a stand lands with a thud because he isn’t given a real character arc. Mehmet—like every other character in the film—is just a switch meant to turn on The Antenna’s glowing neon messages.

Fans of experimental film might find some interest in The Antenna’s sound, production design, or surreal photography, but the film is still too conventional and formulaic to really call groundbreaking. Behram has a handful of favorite shots that he repeats over and over again and holds for much longer than he should. Sure, there are a few sequences I found mesmerizing (toward the beginning, mostly) but toward the end I had my fill of slow, meticulous strolls through cavernous hallways and stairwells. Despite its gestures toward complexity, the emotional content of The Antenna is way too simple to warrant the time and attention it begs of its audience.