There are a lot of things going on in Aloft: difficult Arctic journeys, potentially fraudulent faith healers, falconry, vehicular mishaps, quasi-magical wood sculptures, a frozen landscape that may or may not be linked to some sort of modern ice age. Yet the American debut of Peruvian director Claudia Llosa is also frustratingly stingy with the explanatory details, aiming for an abstruse approach that’s more exasperating than mysterious. Gaps are filled in with vague suggestions of new-age mysticism and lots of portentous dialogue, and what results is a tepid, gray-white smudge of a movie, so fixated on offering a deep-freeze depiction of overwhelming emotional trauma that it remains hopelessly inert.
This all takes place in an unexplained alternate reality, which at first appears to have dystopian elements, but ends up being not that dissimilar from our own present. Two different stories, set 20 years apart, are told side by side, each one commenting on the other. In the first, single mother Nana (Jennifer Connelly) battles to keep her family intact, going to extreme measures to heal her cancer-stricken son, who doctors have deemed unsaveable. In the second, her other son, Ivan (Cillian Murphy), now grown with a family of his own, sets off on a personal journey with a documentarian interested in tracking down his since-vanished mother. Even these minimal particulars come into focus only gradually, and rather than weaving the two tales sinuously together, the parallel-track narrative grants the clumsy feel of walking in snowshoes, trudging along toward the point where they inevitably converge.
Aloft’s worst quality is its underhanded attempt to convey a complex recounting of one family’s ordeal while fudging all the pertinent details, providing only the showstopper moments of suffering children, struggling mothers, and long pent-up rage, all shot in soft-focus close-ups that suit the story’s fuzzy sense of ambiguity, but frustrates further through stifling literal-mindedness. And it’s a feeling exacerbated by the heavy-handed dialogue, with its incessant, hazily defined talk of miracles and magic, the characters speaking in maddeningly terse epigrams. The film seems to be withholding information purposefully, meting out just enough to keep viewers strung along, but its entire focus ends up subsumed by this slow-drip delivery, as things quickly progress from perplexing inscrutability to turgid monotony. The final product is a huge distance away from Llosa’s funny, colorful The Milk of Sorrow, making for an exasperatingly incomplete movie which feels as dull and muddled as the sleety palette which defines it.