A boy is hanging from his parachute, which in turn is hanging from the tree it snagged on during its descent, and he is unconscious from the drama of exiting a crashing aeroplane. But he soon wakes up when he realises he is not alone in this apparently almost barren landscape, as advancing on him is a huge, nebulous figure shaped vaguely like a giant man that unstoppably envelops him as he is suspended, leading him into a fugue that he barely escapes from by unclipping his straps. He falls to the ground and rousing himself, runs off towards what he hopes is safety, for beyond this desert is a stone arch, and beyond that another, leading to an oasis where he can find succour - but he cannot stay there forever, as the giant is still dogging his footsteps.
Away was practically a one-man show, for its creator Gints Zilbalodis created everything you saw and heard from its animation and character design to its music and sound effects, an enormously impressive achievement for a young man still in his twenties, with a mere handful of short works to his name to this point. This effort was enough to garner him international attention outside of his native Latvia, if only because the notion that one imagination could have dreamt up and applied itself to this picture was enough to prompt much doffing of caps across the world. How did he come up with a plot so ripe with symbolism? How did he convey that seemingly meaningful journey for his protagonist with, as a legend quickly had it, a simple animation program on his computer?
In truth, the computer-based origins of the animation were obvious, not least because the adventure it depicted resembled a high concept, immersive game of the sort that became popular when indie producers were exploring what they could do within the parameters of the new breed of consoles where they would thrive, if not dominate. If you did not mind the process of watching a character puzzle solving in a manner more reminiscent of those games than it was in the tradition of cartoon features, you were going to get along with Away far better than those who found no appeal in being in the same room as someone methodically playing through a puzzler, and it was true there were many who would never find the activity of gaming anywhere near as profound as sitting down with a good movie - a good art movie, it had to be emphasised.
There were all sorts of tasks to be undertaken by the nameless hero, some more obvious than others. Looking after a baby bird was a chance to "win points", as was travelling through those stone archways that crop up in a fairly regular pattern along the centre of the island he is trapped on, though the main reward came from negotiating the giant, who would appear to represent a selection of life issues, though the chief one was death. Staying one step ahead of the Grim Reaper was imperative, and the lad even set traps for the spectre as he moved through a selection of landscapes from forestry to a shallow lake to an eventual snowbound mountain range, all to reach a village a map has promised him will be his reward should he get there unscathed. Many animals were encountered as well, all with their eyes stressed with blank, impenetrable significance (the boy is a shade more expressive, despite his silence), but while the visuals, gliding through the scenes effortlessly, were truly captivating up to a point, the nagging feeling the director should have turned this into a game was hard to shift, and worked against its mystical message-making.
[Following on from its UK and Irish cinema release in August, AWAY is available to pre-order now on iTunes - click here - & AppleTV - click here. It can be purchased from Sky Store, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Rakuten and Sony from January 18th 2021.]