This review of Neptune Frost originally ran in conjunction with the film’s premiere at the 2022 Sundance International Film Festival. It has been updated and republished for the film’s release in theaters and virtual cinemas.
“Maybe you’re asking yourself, WTF is this? Is it a poet’s idea of a dream?”
These are the first words spoken by Neptune Frost, the eponymous protagonist of Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’ Afrofuturist musical, after a life-threatening motorbike collision, a miraculous revival, and a subsequent transformation. It’s a reasonable question, the type viewers may ask themselves at several points throughout the course of the film’s strange, circuitous odyssey.
Filmed and set in and around Rwanda and Burundi, and executive produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Williams and Uzeyman’s “anti-capitalist cyber-musical” follows the story of itinerant intersex runaway Neptune Frost (portrayed at different times onscreen by Elvis Ngabo “Bobo” and Cheryl Isheja). Spurred by the loss of their mother, they embark on a journey of self-discovery and re-invention. Dogged by an oppressive police force known only as “The Authority,” Neptune is inexplicably drawn to a mysterious village cobbled together out of discarded e-waste, home to a small hacktivist enclave of revolutionaries and a coltan miner named Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse, a musician who performs as “Kaya Free”), who’s grieving the death of his younger brother Tekno. Together, the two form a bond that manifests as a power which threatens to upend the parasitic relationship between Western technology and the Global South. Also, there are musical numbers!
That’s a lot to throw at first-time viewers, let alone anyone unfamiliar with the fact that Neptune Frost is technically an adaptation of Williams’ 2016 concept album MartyrLoserKing, from which the film’s score and soundtrack are heavily derived. At times befuddling, though adamantly mesmerizing, Neptune Frost fuses searing anti-establishment lyricism with ethereal electronica to create a film and universe worthy of its place alongside the likes of Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place and 2019’s I Snuck off the Slave Ship. The costumes in Neptune Frost, created by multidisciplinary artist Cedric Mizero, are particularly striking — they appropriate materials like discarded circuit boards, loose wiring, and even bicycle wheels to create designs that skew between eccentric and otherworldly.
Neptune Frost isn’t especially concerned about explaining itself. Instead, it’s adamantly preoccupied with the nature of boundaries and how to hack them: It considers the delineations of class and capital, gender and sex, the powerful and the exploited, then addresses how these distinctions are formed and how they can be subverted, re-examined, and reimagined through the power of love, community, and an awareness of the value of one’s labor in the global supply chain. Neptune Frost probes the question of how we create a future beyond the pernicious parasitism of capitalism and colonialism. Put another way: How can one mold a new reality from out of the detritus of a world in ruin?
As fascinating as these questions are, none of them would be engaging if not for the music which functions as Neptune Frost’s primary mode of exposition. The high-level concepts of the film’s premise dovetail perfectly into the eclectic sonic palette of its Afropunk-inspired soundtrack. The tracks that originated from Williams’ 2016 album MartyrLoserKing have been re-orchestrated and rearranged to conform to the film’s context. The lyrics have been rewritten into a medley of Swahili and English, French and Kirundi, reflecting the global mindset at the heart of the film’s focus, and a reflection of Rwanda’s rich, varied cultural background. It isn’t the type of musical where people will feel compelled to memorize and belt out the lyrics, but they’re likely to find themselves nodding to the beat.
Neptune Frost is about the connection between joy and anger, between celebration and introspection, between a community and the individual. More pointedly, it’s a movie about a disenfranchised collective who seize power of the technology their own lives and labor have assembled, and use it to give voice to a message that had gone unheard. “Technology was the name of my brother,” Matalusa tells his fellow hackers in the film’s final act. “It’s technology that guides us today. They use our blood and sweat to communicate to one another, but have never heard our voice. Until now.”
Though Neptune Frost’s message might initially come across as scattershot, it rings loud and clear by the film’s climax, punctuated by an explosive act of state violence that, rather than succeeding in its effort to snuff out resistance, only seems to have further amplified it. Neptune Frost is a bold, bizarre, and unflinchingly confident debut that prompts its audience to interrogate the very real human costs of the information age through the speculative lens of a future both vastly different and uncannily similar to our own.
Neptune Frost opens in New York on June 3, with a city-to-city rollout following. Check the film’s website for local listings and upcoming showtimes.