Feature Narrative Reviews

Manjista (2021) – 1.5 stars

Director: Declan Mateo Kramer & Rohan Khehar

Writer: Declan Mateo Kramer & Rohan Khehar

Cast: Rohan Khehar, Diego Dominguez, Zane Marcus Adlam, Krishan Ralph Peiris, Gabriel Martin Schafer, Charlie Chwalowski

Running time: 54mins

Nobody is credited for the music of Manjista. That tells me one of two things. Either Declan Mateo Kramer and Rohan Khehar have contravened the terms of use of a music producer like Kevin MacLeod (his work can be used for free under a Creative Commons license, provided the filmmaker credits him as the composer); or the person behind the foul miasma of relentless, droning synth which hangs over this production was so ashamed of their work that they asked not to be named.

Initially, the unbroken synthetic bass note which plagues the entire 54 minutes of Manjista does not seem to be a problem. As a lone spacecraft drifts through the endless void of space, the music seems to be setting the scene for a sci-fi epic, akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, the first time the additional six-note scale of descending tones loops around, it adds a sense of suspense to procedings.

As the action – such as it is – of Kramer and Khehar’s film unfolds, however, the circling tune becomes about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit. At any point where the film has a chance to build something resembling atmosphere, the torturous score cycles back around, to hammer our ears with another bar of honking Casio keyboard ‘strings’ – ultimately serving to highlight just how bland and unimaginative the overall production actually is.

As with the score, things start out with a little promise. A nameless pilot (played by co-director Rohan Khehar) picks up a signal onboard his spaceship. He is a scavenger, who travels between solar systems looking for opportunities to mine raw materials – and his off-brand HAL-9000 tells him that there is a golden opportunity just “0.7 sleep cycles” away. The first five minutes of the film consist of his ship homing in on this signal – and while the special effects won’t compare to mainstream sci-fi, the brief shots of the vast, dreamy expanses he travels through are genuinely impressive. They are also well balanced with shots of the pilot, sleeping listlessly in the ship’s hull – a clever move which avoids over-egging the film’s CGI, while also contrasting the limitless scope of space with the claustrophobic discomfort it requires to explore that apparent liberty.

It is a contrast the film does little with for the remaining 50 minutes or so. A technical anomaly means the pilot soon finds himself in uncharted territory – gazing at another vast expanse: the desert of what seems to be an uninhabited planet. If this elicits a gasp of “oh no” from you, you’re not alone. The tactic of initially creating a majestic setting for a film, only to invent a MacGuffin which then means your characters spend the majority of their time in a cheaper, much less impressive location (the woods, an abandoned building, the desert) is one most B-movie aficionados have been exposed to far too often.

Just as you might suspect, the next 20 minutes consist of Khehar wandering through the barren wilderness, occasionally bending over slowly to scoop up objects of interest (random weeds that happened to be growing wherever he was filming). Showing how little effort went into these scenes, Khehar’s ship conveniently vanishes from view immediately after he steps outside – despite the wide-angle lens showing that there is literally nothing in the landscape which could be breaking our line of sight to it. Not only was there no attempt to cobble together a ramshackle prop to present as the external of the spacecraft (it doesn’t have to be much to look at, he is after all, an impoverished scavenger), there is not even an Austin Powers-ish attempt to hide the silvery tube behind a cactus, or a conveniently phallic rock formation. There is just a vague hope that the audience doesn’t have object permanence.

Mercifully, it seems there may be some progression when Khehar encounters a tribe of desert people – who have been taught to speak by a previous visitor they took to be a deity. Mistaking him for a relative of the first “Manjista”, or “teacher”, the tribe begins to follow his commands – something he abuses to set up an unpaid mining operation. While there are many directions this story could have been developed in the time and space available, however, the appalling synth cycle kicks back in to reassure us that there will be no complex or original thinking today. Instead, another endless segment commences where Khehar shuffles through the desert, looking disinterestedly at pebbles. Only this time, he is joined by the tribe, picking up clusters of blue stones lying lazily on the surface of the sand.

Things do manage to come to something of a head, when the chief of the tribe (Diego Dominguez, whose mouth is obscured to make it easier to ADR his lines with a James Earl Jones sound-alike) realises the new Manjista may not have their best interests at heart. A laughably bad fight scene ensues, which Kramer and Khehar seemingly decided didn’t need to be choreographed, and largely involves Dominguez and Khehar pushing each other over into the soft sand.

After this session of noodle-armed grappling is finally judged to have gone on for long enough, the directors seem to remember this is a sci-fi, and reintroduce some of the half-decent CGI for the final minute, in an ending which neatly avoids the need to tie up any of the plot’s many loose ends and underexplored plot-points. But by then, the damage has been done – and beyond the soundtrack (which I fear will haunt me until my dying day), I suspect little of Manjista‘s unambitious, forgettable fare will linger in my mind beyond the weekend.

Sometimes, when it can be bothered, this production features competent effects, decent cinematography, and a concept which could have been compelling. There are worse films than Manjista. But I would struggle to name one that is close to being this boring. From the repetitive strain of the soundtrack, to the endless scenes of a disinterested man trudging through the desert, there is not enough meat here to fill out a short film, let alone to justify a run-time of close to an hour.

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