Undone review: Amazon, BoJack Horseman team bring an emotionally resonant story about trauma and time travel
Creators: Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay, Daveed Diggs
Alma, the emotionally troubled protagonist of Amazon's new series Undone, feels trapped in a life of repetition and monotony. She is tired of the same old routine of waking up in the morning, putting on the same clothes, driving through the same streets, going to the same job, and coming home after a dreary day to do the same thing all over again the next day. Her soulkilling routine is presented to us in a fluid rotoscope montage, and we empathise because we have all been there.
Just like many of us, Alma hoped to follow her dreams, aspirations and the yellow brick road as a kid. In a key flashback, we see her still in her Dorothy phase with a pinafore dress and braided pigtails, going trick-or-treating on Halloween with her theoretical physicist dad, who can't quite understand the point of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is living a dull normal life, and she is given a chance to live a more exciting one in a Technicolor wonderland. Yet, all she wants to do is go home. "If you had a chance to do something amazing, would you just want everything to return to normal?” he asks Alma.
Fortunately or unfortunately for Alma, she does get a chance to escape the mundane and inject some colour and adventure back into her life. But will she take it?
Alma (played by Rosa Salazar) works in a daycare centre. She is in a stable, if not exciting, relationship with her agreeable live-in boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Her younger sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral), just got engaged and her mother, Camila (Constance Marie), worries about her to a fault. Between her job and her domestic life, she seems emotionally exhausted and on course for burnout or a blowout. One day, after a temper tantrum, she nearly dies in a car crash caused by a shocking vision of her long-dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk). When she wakes up from a coma, the ghost of her dad tries to recruit her to solve the mystery surrounding his death. He tells her she has a shaman brain and possesses the ability to perceive time in a non-linear manner, like those heptapods in Arrival. He then encourages her to use these abilities to go back in time and save his life. As she puts it more succinctly, "I'm seeing my dead father because of my big brain ventricles, and he's training me to travel back in time so I can save him from being murdered."
So, you know, it's your usual animated time travel psychological drama murder mystery. Created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg of BoJack Horseman fame, Undone may not mark a quantum leap forward in terms of the animation style. But it stings you with the same kind of uncomfortable truths in its melancholy portrait of millennial ennui. It takes a plunge into the depths of our psyche, and stirs the mind to introspection and the soul with questions that may never really be answered — or we’re not yet equipped to answer.
Though it digs deep into some pretty heady philosophical questions and may keep you wondering about its mindbending premise, it still manages to keep you engrossed with its all-too-human drama. Purdy and Bob-Waksberg's writing is discerning as always; the conversations always sound like ones regular people would have, but with an added stylised twist of quick-witted repartee.
It is nice to see Amazon, like Netflix, create an adult animated series with a free wheeling, experimental energy, because every frame of Undone seems both dreamlike and lifelike. Similar to Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, the rotoscope animation in Undone gives the impression of a lucid dream and perfectly complements its story.
Undone will leave you feeling lost in an unravelling mind, an unending twilight zone, as Alma struggles against the darker aspects of her own nature. But Salazar grounds the madness in a moving emotional reality, her eyes working overtime to bring the truth in her performance.
Despite the temporal paradoxes it brings with it, time travel has often been used as a springboard by sci-fi writers to examine themes concerning free will. But rarely has it been used to explore the nature of mind and reality so effectively. Is Alma really travelling through time and space or is she merely experiencing hallucinations in her semi-comatose state?
Like in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Undone also uses time travel as a metaphor to cope with trauma. Billy Pilgrim is a WWII prisoner-of-war with PTSD and thinks he has been kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore; Alma lost her dad when she was all but eight and she thinks he was murdered because he somehow figured out the secret to time travel.
We know her grandmother was schizophrenic — and her dad wasn't exactly the most clear-headed guy. Given all that she has been through, it is only logical to interpret her time travel adventures as hallucinations triggered by her mundane daily routines that have somehow become associated with her trauma. As she re-experiences this trauma, her mind is playing all sorts of crazy tricks to cope with it.
Undone, however, refuses to settle on one interpretation, instead opening up a space for discussion and contemplation on mental health.
Considering it comes from the same team that brought you BoJack Horseman, we'd say it's worth seeking out.
Undone is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Updated Date: Sep 23, 2019 13:04:41 IST