The email hit my inbox in mid-May. The reader kept things succinct.
Subject: Remember Domain?
Body: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately:
Two months into a global pandemic obviously sticking around for a bit, I can’t say I had put much thought into a sci-fi B-movie I saw once several years back. But upon mention, I did instantly and vaguely remember Domain. I caught a screener for Ars ahead of a small sci-fi-only film festival in December 2016, and the premise stuck with me more than the plot or any single performance. In this unabashedly indie film (read: high-concept, super specific, and low-budget aesthetic), a viral pandemic called the Saharan Flu keeps racking up a body count. “The World Health Organization says it’s potentially civilization-threatening,” public broadcasts declare within the film’s opening minutes after 5,000 deaths (only!) sweep across Germany, Egypt, and Italy.
Ho-hum, another pandemic film, you say. We have a million of those. In fact, not even writer/director Nathaniel Atcheson had been recently thinking about Domain in light of our current predicament (I called and asked in June). But what happens in-film after its fictional pandemic makes Domain disturbingly prescient four years later. The movie follows seven people from across the United States, but most of the action takes place in similar-looking bunkers because humanity has been forced to quarantine en masse. And in this alternate version of the present day, the government requires these groups to keep tabs on each other by communicating through ever-present video chat—it’s not Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet, or Skype; it’s the titular Domain.
“It was probably two or three weeks into [the pandemic] before I realized and put the connection together myself,” Atcheson tells Ars. “I literally made a movie about this exact scenario: people are home for a very long time and all they have is this Web interface. The real-world logistics are a bit different—obviously we can go outside, we just aren’t supposed to. So maybe that kept me from making the connection sooner, but I’m sort of embarrassed how long it took for me to think of it. I have the poster on my wall in my living room/dining room, and I was sitting here eating and looking at the poster. ‘Oh my god.'”
Like the anonymous Ars reader above, others who had seen the movie had been making the connection, though. Domain hit DVD and VOD back in 2018, and the film sat on Amazon Prime waiting in plain sight as all of us started having more living room time than we bargained for this spring. Atcheson has since noticed an uptick in user reviews saying as much. And when we revisited our review of the film this spring, phew, does it make you do a double take.
If deadly flu destroys the world and we’re all left together on Skype, it won’t end well…
As the film’s reliance on a social network plot point may indicate, Domain has something to say about the nature of our interactions through digital means. It’s a place that empowers consequence-free action for trolls like Orlando, a place that can feel so isolating that suicide seems viable, and a place where a real mystery can propagate endless fear-mongering theories…
Domain‘s fictitious president oversees a US that is ransacked by viral outbreak and choses to save everyone by only focusing on a select few. And within this new world, bullying and fear could run wild. As with any good sci-fi, there’s probably a lesson somewhere.
Of course, when Atcheson was writing Domain sometime before 2015, he had no intention of predicting or speaking to life in 2020 (or to the very unexpected changes in the fall of 2016 when Domain debuted, for that matter). Without spoiling anything, neither viral pandemics nor the horrors of always-online life actually inspired Atcheson to sit down and write Domain. Instead, a separate subject still on the public’s mind did: the criminal justice system. Domain turns out to be a twist movie, a concept Atcheson has a love/hate relationship with. It can make a film more complex and interesting, but “they’re usually so often just a ‘Gotcha!'” he says. “They don’t always have thematic relevance, so I wanted this one to make you go back and think about everything else you saw.”
Making an indie film he knew would struggle to get footing since it didn’t feature a star, Atcheson ultimately kept Domain at a tight ~90 minutes to maximize his chance for finding an audience and earning festival showings. As such, the twist may not be as fully explored as some viewers would like. But the filmmaker told Ars he actually had a sequel in mind if the opportunity came about, and that story would lean much more into the ideas in Domain‘s final act. And if Atcheson had the opportunity to remake things (or to turn Domain into a series on Netflix or Quibi or whatever), those ideas would be emphasized faster and further.
“The virus stuff is interesting, but pandemics have happened. People have made movies about people waiting in isolation from viruses or viruses ravaging the world. For the original concept, I was inspired by this novel Station Eleven, which is about to be adapted into a TV series,” Atcheson says. “The concept is: everyone loves a good viral thriller. And for me, I wanted to set that apart from the crowd by having this other thematic thrust, which is this one-two punch of the virus and then [what happens in the end, #NoSpoilers]. Today’s Black Lives Matter and justice-reform protests have strangely made the movie more relevant than I could’ve ever expected. I never wanted it to have a happy ending, because that didn’t feel appropriate for the story. I couldn’t see a way for it to resolve into something positive for these characters.”
Given the odd state of cinema in 2020, revisiting small, possibly overlooked titles from recent years has become one of the few, reliable ways to see new (or at least new-to-you) films. And revisiting Domain, which is still available on VOD and Amazon Prime, actually took my mind to a few other recent smaller films. The stylish and claustrophobic High Life, Claire Denis’ space flick with Robert Pattinson, shares a similar high aesthetic and vibe (“I actually watched that at the beginning of quarantine,” Atcheson says. “I was definitely going for a similar thing, at least with the art direction, though obviously I’m not Claire Denis. I thought it was great”).
But Domain makes me think most about another Amazon Prime flick—The Vast of Night. These two films share an approach to storytelling: take a known archetype (pandemics and aliens), apply your vision and voice, and give audiences just enough to think about without offering an explicit message, thus allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.
When Ars spoke to Vast of Night filmmaker Andrew Patterson last fall, he believed that should be the goal of both good sci-fi and of good films in general. They have captivating central stories and timeless-enough ideas and themes for different generations or time periods to see their reality within. “Good films will be about something else depending on the era they’re watched in. They can kind of meander through time,” Patterson said, citing a Lawrence of Arabia rewatch that brought the film’s LGBTQ undertones to his attention. “So I hope we made a movie that in 40 years is about the definition of a family or in 30 years is about something else.”
It’s only been four years for Domain, but already the film has lived through and resonated within two potentially historic and distinct times in US (if not world) history. Not bad at all for a young filmmaker’s little sci-fi B-movie.
Listing image by Fons PR / Other Worlds Austin