Updated: Dec 20, 2021
They say necessity is the mother of invention and Infinitum: Subject Unknown (2021) is an ambitious undertaking produced in extraordinary circumstances. Written and filmed during the first COVID-19 national lockdown in the UK in 2020, Infinitum was shot entirely using an iPhone with post-production completed remotely. The film received its online premiere in March 2021 – which Janus Film Review attended – and in a short interview conducted before the screening, the film's creators, husband and wife team Matt and Tori Butler-Hart (director and star respectively) described it as 'mind-bending British sci-fi'. It certainly owes a significant debt to a number of time-defying, parallel world-navigating science fiction films. It plays like Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day (1993) and Rian Johnson's Looper (2012) coalescing into a fever dream. On its own merits, Infinitum is an admirable achievement given the restrictions the Butler-Harts were working under. The 'homemade' aspect of the production does result in the film feeling a little rough around the edges in places, but did any of us make a full-length feature film in the midst of a global pandemic? And bag Sir Ian McKellen for a cameo role to boot?
Infinitum takes a while to get going but, once it does, it develops into something quite compelling. Tori Butler-Hart stars as Jane, caught in a terminal time-loop and unaware she is the subject of a time experiment. Bound and gagged to a chair in an attic, we follow her attempts to escape her confines, only for her to get so far before everything resets and she is back where she started. She hears voices through the cracks in time, observing her movement as they detail the progress of the experiment. Intermittently, she sees visions of a swirling vortex that is like a nightmarish 'Doctor Who' title sequence. She doesn't know who she is or what is happening and, for the vast majority of the film, I don't think the audience is meant to either. We learn what is happening through Jane's eyes as she learns it herself. The opening section is purposefully disorientating, and almost threatens to delay a forward momentum. There are only so many times a reset switch can be employed and a scene played out again from different angles before the attention of the audience is tested. The film teeters on the edge of this, but then begins to find its rhythm when Jane manages to break free from her confinement. This is where Infinitum finds an opportunity to fully capitalise on being shot during lockdown. Art imitates life in the eerie scenes of her driving through the deserted streets of London – moments I found to be among the most effective.
Like its central character, Infinitum maintains an unsettled tone throughout. Decisive editing by William Honeyball, clever split screen shots, hypnotic sound design, and Tom Kane's ethereal score all contribute to a claustrophobic journey through a parallel world where nothing is at it seems. There are certainly allusions to Edge of Tomorrow (2014) in use of the 'reset' narrative, almost playing out like levels of a traditional video game. There are also moments reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998), with Conleth Hill and Ian McKellen appearing fleetingly in talking head 'interview' segments as eminent scientists providing the useful backstory of their human subject's predicament, but paying no mind to the ethical implications of their experimentation.
Infinitum: Subject Unknown warms up as it goes along. It is a confident work, and a strong example of what can happen when creative minds are free to create, albeit with next to no budget, but unencumbered by studio interference. In the post-screening interview with the Butler-Harts and Sir Ian McKellen, we learned that the film is adapted from a broader idea that encompasses the possibility of more linked films set in the multiple universes that Infinitum hints at. Let’s hope future instalments allow for continued unimpeded creativity as there is certainly plenty of scope for further exploration of the mind-bending worlds introduced in this film. For me, Infinitum’s intentions can be considered a success: my mind was well and truly bent, contorted and scrambled.
It is truly remarkable that a movie as accomplished as Infinitum: Subject Unknown (2021) could’ve been born from such unusual - and entirely unprecedented - circumstances. From a technical standpoint the film is a singular feat; an exemplary illustration of just what can be achieved when extremely modest means are allied to confident intent, and the sheer will to create something almost from nothing. Director Matthew Butler-Hart wields his Apple-stamped lens with genuine skill, and in the process displays a zest for visual storytelling that shames a dozen Hollywood hire-a-hack mercenaries. Repetition is a required function of both plot and narrative here, so a strong visual flair, alongside a taste for a savvy motif, is a highly effective platform from which to proceed.
Infinitum is thus a hugely compelling film to look at, but its narrative shortcomings are equally plain to the eye. You do not follow the film so much as interpret it; there is little in the way of linear explanation, and the closest we get to meaning comes from Messrs Hill and McKellen - or the high-profile talking heads - as they exposit the rules and features of the world at large. This is less a criticism and more an invested observation: for such a classically arthouse perspective is often, to the more attuned observer, its own richly ambiguous reward. However to a more casual viewer such a course runs the very real risk of confusion and even alienation. That would be a shame because such boldness, be it born of necessity or the stubbornness of choice, deserves to be witnessed.
Speaking of deserving, Tori Butler-Hart brings an earnest intensity to the role of Jane - our eyes and ears as we traverse this desolate land of the familiar - and her performance gains momentum as Jane garners increased levels of perception. As the film approaches its climax we are fully invested in her journey, and this is a credit to the actor tasked with carrying the story on her (clearly capable) shoulders. Significant attention will obviously be given to the aforementioned luminaries, but this is truthfully a one woman show. From a narrative standpoint I had a hard time justifying the inclusion of both Conleth Hill and Sir Ian McKellen; especially when they are performing essentially the same role and proffering the same information (in typically capable fashion, naturally). It doesn’t harm the film - on the contrary, their collective onscreen presence guarantees increased mainstream attention - but in terms of story it is a mildly wasteful and somewhat cynical exercise.
Infinitum was created during the United Kingdom’s first national lockdown in 2020, and the filmic backdrops of a lost, eerie and uncomfortably barren London serve as a constant (and decidedly unhappy) reminder of this truth. It was equally inspired by the consequences of lockdown, and its themes of isolation, repetition and death readily attest to this assertion. Perhaps most profoundly of all, Infinitum stands as symbolic of the very idea of ‘Lockdown’. Early on in the film there is a beautiful long shot of an incarcerated Jane as she looks out through a locked window, gazing longingly at a world where the sun still shines but she is neither wanted nor welcome. Her reaction is to bang on the window and yearn for escape: all dangers, instincts and explanations be damned. Art is very definitely imitating life here, and this concept - the heart and soul of Infinitum: Subject Unknown - is genuinely thought-provoking.