André Øvredal, “Tunnelen” (2016)
Even something as seemingly innocuous and commonplace as driving to the seaside – and then getting stuck in peak-hour traffic on the way back home – becomes fodder for dystopian science fiction horror in Norwegian director André Øvredal’s short film “Tunnelen”. A family of four (Tom the father, Jeanette the mother, and Peter and Anne the children) is returning home in its self-driving car (which looks exactly like all the other self-driving cars on the multi-lane highway) and must go through a huge tunnel to get back into the city and home. Home is one of millions of rabbit-hutch apartments in a huge brutalist steel hive amongst all the hundreds of other steel hives bunched up together in the city. The tunnel is subject to periodic closures, none of which can be predicted (and thus planned for) in advance. While the slowly crawling traffic inches through the tunnel, our family sweats out the agonising time while the car moves silently along with other cars. Peter befriends a girl, Eva, in the car alongside theirs. Halfway through the tunnel, the lanes change around the family and Peter loses sight of Eva’s car. When the four are almost out of the tunnel, the traffic stops and huge metal shutters roll down, stopping just behind them so they lose sight of the car behind them. The family is then allowed to travel on to its home destination while the car that was behind it is stuck in the tunnel – arbitrarily chosen as part of a periodic population reduction.
The tension is very palpable in family members’ faces and in the increasingly agitated conversations they have. Jeanette desperately tries to keep Anne occupied with her artwork. The family – and all other families like it – sit helplessly in the huge phalanxes of black self-driving cars as they move slowly through the tunnel. The steel grey hues and black backgrounds of the film suggest a grimy, dismal existence for most people though our family and Peter’s new friend Eva look like stereotypically well-scrubbed Scandinavians.
While the actors put in good performances in roles limited by the demands and restrictions of the plot, ultimately the film looks sketchy and underdeveloped. We never really learn why the family must travel to the seaside resort and back again using a tunnel everyone knows is liable at any give moment to shut down and execute every single person trapped inside. Viewers must make their own judgement as to the type of government and political system existing in the world of “Tunnelen” that would willingly sacrifice citizens for a particular environmental ideology. We learn very little about the main characters themselves, what they have done and might continue to do that will put their lives and their children’s lives in jeopardy when they have to travel through the tunnel or cross over some other vital transport artery. “Tunnelen” could have done with a slightly longer treatment emphasising important issues of the day and exploring the consequences of people willingly giving up control over their lives and possessions to the authorities.
The film is based on a short story “The Tunnel Ahead” by Alice Glaser that was first published in 1961 and which explores the nature of human acquiescence to repressive totalitarian governments such as those of Germany and Italy under Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from the 1930s to the present day. Perhaps if the film had taken on the themes and characters of that short story, it would have had more to say about the nature of the society in which Tom and his family live, how the family acquiesces in its repression and how its members, especially its children, suffer from that repression.