Subterranean Cinema: A Return to the Geo-Imaginaries of the Hollow Earth
The Earth is a magnet, though not a reliable one. At the center of the planet churns a vat of molten iron, highly charged. It does many things for us, including offering us our lodestone bearings and our comet-shaped magnetosphere, which protects Earth from solar radiation.
When the magnetism of the Earth shifts, false compass readings ensue and the magnetic poles can migrate or even flip. Several centuries ago, scientists wondered if these phenomena occurred because the Earth is hollow, or, in another theory put forward in 1692 by Edmund Halley, if the Earth has nested, spherical shells all spinning in different directions. By the 18th century these ideas of underground worlds had stimulated the popular imagination, yielding the genre of subterranean fiction. Now, the subterranean is surfacing in new ways in cinema.
We are in desperate search of spaces that offer us greater degrees of darkness—be that the cinema or underground caverns or possibly the greater cosmos. These alter-territories hold the promise of maximum separation from the 7.5 billion other people on the planet. In gravitating toward sites of absence, specifically the mine, the cave, the hole, where cameras are insufficient tools of capture (if not rendered entirely useless), film artists have found overlapping themes that go beyond traditional ecological concerns of diminishing resources and compromised landscapes.
Take Ben Russell’s Good Luck (2017), for example. It is divided into hemispheres, literally and structurally, split between the sanctioned RTB Copper mine in Bor, Serbia, and an illegal gold mine in Suriname. In the first half of the film, we travel underground with Serbian miners, a cinematically familiar descent where men cram into a cage-like elevator, face forward, and the claustrophobia intensifies with every roll of the passing rock face. The miners move with a worn slowness, even as they wield impossibly long, thin drills, whereupon the frenzied pitch of the sound and the vibration of the machines still cannot shake their ennui. The men light up their underground world by headlamps mounted atop hardhats and by combing flashlights across the stone walls; they rely on the occasional fluorescent light. Only during the miners' lunch break does the blue-black color palette of the first half of the film shift temporarily—lightening as the mood of the miners does with coffee and cigarettes.
Then, halfway through the 143-minute film, we make an internal Vernian journey: an RTB mining vehicle travels up a different, open shaft over the course of a three-minute continuous shot that rolls out to flares and white, recapitulating a kind of resurfacing blindness. When vision restores, we see the symbol of a divided circle, white on a black background. Instead of returning to Europe and the western world, we find ourselves in a verdant tropical forest with a man and a metal detector.
The trip was both an ascendance and a backward tumble, from regulated, controlled mining to illegal, DIY mining on the surface. The world here is red and oozing with mud. The man we initially follow has a pickaxe poking out of his clay-stained white t-shirt; he wears headphones in order to listen for where "the gold is hiding." He and his fellow miners' food and cigarette breaks also happen in the near-dark, with conversations about shitting and spilling blood, machines "crying out," and the recognition that everyone and everything is tired, even "the jungle wants to rest." The Earth we witness has become hollow, scraped out by humans for the sake of capitalism.
Filmmaker Ana Vaz has also looked to mines for geopolitical relevance, notably in A Idade da Pedra (The Age of Stone, 2013). Vaz takes us to a marble mine, a place of chipping, chiseling, and excavation, in the hillsides of western Brazil. Yet Vaz does not attempt to merely document, but rather, she introduces delicate CGI monuments, crafted into surface grids that transmogrify edenic Earth into architectural planes. In the 29-minute film, Vaz flies us from the swarm of a spider's nest into rock faces, leads us through small canyons, and presents in mythic terms a true conundrum: are humans building up or breaking down our constructed civilizations? Her work pushes into the realm of speculative fiction whereby bedrock becomes a kind of cosmological vista for seeing simultaneously the distant past—deep and anthropological—and imagined futures.
A similar move toward the speculative arises in surprising fashion in Emily Drummer's film Field Resistance (2019). Drummer begins in the digital realm with the computer-rendered dissection of a digitized plant. A mouse cursor blinks and clicks as it parses petals from the plant, and then we cut to an indoor plant, tacked with two small velveteen Christmas ribbons, the tips of its leaves withered and cut. The plant nearly obscures a sign that reveals the location: a US Department of Agriculture laboratory for the study of plants. A dated filing system holds specimens within small paper shrouds, a disembodied hand unfolds the paper with care to study the contents under a microscope. More signs pop up cueing us to dangerous chemicals nearby.
Halfway through the film humans retreat underground, "where they'll make their last stand," Drummer explains in her accompanying text for the film. The plants, it seems, have staged an insurrection, a revolt for having been staked and smothered under plastic, burned, and bombarded by herbicides. As humans search for refuge below the streets, the cinematography shrinks to what can be discerned within myopic beams of individual light sources. Extreme close-ups reveal lichens, but the fleeing humans might not be suited to such extremes.
Drummer's film serves as more of a paean to the agency and interspecies awareness of flora than an argument for what underground spaces can reveal. Yet her cinematic articulation indicates a broader search for places of silence, darkness, and vacuums. Disorienting sonic slippages and unsettling indeterminacies of lighting displace people from being the primary subject and instead find ways to tell non-humans’ stories.
Telling stories about sending humans underground holds immense allure, too, evident in recent films ranging from Godzilla: King of The Monsters (2019) to Stanley Schtinter's film Nidder (2018), which includes the true-life story of Geoffrey Workman who, in 1963, lived underground in Stumps Cross Caverns in England for 105 days and lost all sense of time. Brigid McCaffrey's Paradise Springs (2013) chronicles a geologist who forms "intimate relations" with the rock and soil she studies and seeks to merge with the Earth. These films, along with recent books like Underland: A Deept Time Journey (2019) by Robert Macfarlane and the compelling novel The Warlow Experiment (2019) by Alix Nathan give us new perspectives by imagining the realities of residing underground in a variety of a semi-permanent dwellings.
Most radical in its embrace of the underground as a site for alternative living amid ecological catastrophe is Andrew Kötting's film Lek and the Dogs (2017). It stems from the true story of a boy who grew up on the streets of Moscow, Russia, living with a pack of wild dogs. That story was adapted by the playwright Hattie Naylor and adapted again by Kötting as an end to his “Earthworks Trilogy” that includes This Filthy Earth (2001) and Ivul (2009). In the world of this film, being underground brings peace and protection—the world gets quieter and, with close-ups replacing wide shots, the space becomes more intimate, womblike. In one subterranean scene, we see a close-up of an eye socket, half in darkness, with only a glimmer in the reflection of the cornea. The eye becomes increasingly non-human, alien, hunted. Then the film cuts to thorn bushes aboveground, in the isolation of the Atacama desert in Chile. Edited in surveillance fashion from above and approximating the glitches of a security camera, the footage shows the world aerially, starkly bright and without sufficient shadows or places to hide. Underworlds allow for an escape from the exterior destruction, the constant reminders of our excesses. Ultimately, Lek and the Dogs inhabits a foggy no-man’s land between documentary and fiction, between essay and narrative, not speculative as much as redemptive.
Newly dead souls, in the ancient myth of Charon, get transported across the underground river Styx. The name comes from the Greek word charopós, which means “of keen gaze,” perhaps because of the bright or feverish eyes of a person close to death. Most ecosystems on the planet are failing in their current state, if not close to death themselves. As some of the filmmakers mentioned here might attest, the world could be better off if hollowed out—not of stone or ore, but of humans. We certainly cannot succeed in squeezing more blood from stones or extracting more rock without further diminishment. Good luck to us—or, more truthfully, good luck to any species preparing their attack.