In astronomy, the term “cosmic dawn” refers to the furthest point back where can see into the history of the universe. Advanced telescopes and math and a whole lot of other stuff that I am not equipped to understand have helped us map the universe until about 13 billion years ago, just 800 million years after the Big Bang. Due to a period where our universe was veiled in hydrogen, there is a gigantic blind spot which ranges from a bout 50 million years to one billion years after the Big Bang. This is the period where many stars and galaxies were born, but we are limited by time and understanding to obtain much more information than that. Relatively speaking this blind spot is a mere blip, but for we earthlings, it contains a multitude of potential revelations about universal history that trickles down to all fields of study. In order to understand it, we simultaneously look back from the present and ahead from the Big Bang, shrinking the size of this dark period with whatever new information that can be found.
Forgive me if I got all of that wrong, but it’s the best I can to with such a tiny brain. Still, there is a connection here. In Cosmic Dawn, we follow Aurora (Camilla Rowe) who, at a very young age, witnessed her mother being abducted by a UFO. As depicted in the film, all of the trademarks are there: flashing multicolored lights, droning sounds, and an otherworldly alteration of the scenery, but nothing that couldn’t be explained by the strange lens of hindsight recalling the even stranger lens of childhood. At least that’s what everyone wants her to believe. To Aurora (or “Ro” as her friends call her), there’s no question what happened to her mother. She stands up for her memory, but it’s quickly dismissed by everyone else.
That is until Ro meets Natalie (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a bookstore clerk who invites her to a meeting of similarly-minded folks. Folks who have all had an alien experience just like Ro. They call themselves, you guessed it, Cosmic Dawn. Seems harmless enough, right? Doesn’t sound like the makings of a cult or anything, right? Right?
This ambiguity drives much of what happens in Cosmic Dawn. There is as much evidence to the validity of the group as there are red flags that perhaps some malfeasance is afoot. The charismatic leader Elyse, played here by a scene-stealing Antonia Zegers, seems to know a lot about her underlings – more than anyone could without being told – but maybe she’s just a con-artist. There’s no way to tell, but the film’s structure toys with us by jumping back and forth through time — a scene amongst the ranks of the Cosmic Dawners, and then one which occurs long after Ro has apparently left their ranks (the delineation between timelines is marked by Ro’s hair being either up or down.
It’s a useful structure for a film with a somewhat slower pace. By releasing information indirectly, and from opposite ends of the film’s ultimate resolution, we move concentrically toward an understanding of what’s really going on. In a way, we are the astronomers filling in that gap between the Big Bang and our furthest reach into the rear view. And for Ro, her dual adventures of being in a UFO cult and living a post-cult life represent her attempts at filling in an area of her life for which she just doesn’t have all the information — couldn’t possibly have the information.
Cosmic Dawn makes the most of its limited resources to make for a visually exciting piece of sci-fi, and for the most part it succeeds. A few of the more surreal images hint at the film’s budget, but for the most part the choices are inspired, and all lead to a brightly colored film that hides a calm, comforting energy. This is appropriate in hindsight.
Writer/director Jefferson Moneo has tapped into something really cool here, and gets fantastic performances from the cast. The energy is consistent, even if the tone is sometimes a bit out of whack. Not a major issue, the the film reaches a level of whimsicality in its finale that feels like a different movie than so much of what came before it. It’s not the most jarring thing, but there’s another version of this movie that dances with said tone earlier on, leading to a finale that feels a little less like a novelty than it currently does, and highlights the emotional arc that it so cleverly closes in the film’s final moments. I will not spoil.
There is one jarring aspect of the film that may be an attempt to tie-in that whimsical tone, but I don’t think it works. It comes in the form of a heavily cartoonish laser noise that occurs during just about every transition between the two timelines. It’s a noticeable signifier, but it never failed to evoke a giggle. That said, it’s a small aural misstep in an otherwise excellent soundscape. MGMT is responsible for the score, and while it is occasionally a bit too busy, it is effective when it needs to be.
Films like Cosmic Dawn always make for a fascinating watch. You can see the seams, the limitations, the concessions made by filmmakers operating with limited resources, but you can also see the talent and imagination in full effect. Cosmic Dawn isn’t breaking any new ground, but it is a solid oddity that should delight fans of genre fare.
Directed by Jefferson Moneo
Written by Jefferson Moneo
Starring Camille Rowe, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Antonia Zegers, Joshua Burge
Not rated, 93 minutes