About a quarter of the way through the movie Battledream Chronicle, main character Syanna Meridian says that she and friends can no longer go to school because all their time is spent competing in digital deathmatches. If they don't earn 1000 XP every month for their oppressors, their lives get turned off.
Written and directed by Alain Bidard from the Caribbean island of Martinique, Battledream Chronicle takes place in the year 2100 on an Earth choked by lethal levels of pollution. The bulk of humanity survives by teleporting into a massive shared virtual reality game called Battledream, where nations constantly fight for supremacy. When we first meet Syanna, she's the royal leader of the small virtual fiefdom of Farandjun. When Syanna's national team loses a Battledream match to the players from evil global superpower Mortemonde, Farandjun comes under Mortemonde's rule and its culture and collective memory get wiped out. Like billions of others, Syanna must participate in a daily grind of life-or-death battles to earn enough money for the right to live. After the fall of Farandjun, the sole remaining free state is Sablereve, a digital offshoot of Martinique.
In their first match as slaves, Syanna and best friend Lytha stumble on a powerful artefact called the Firebird, a superweapon born of the souls of millions of dead gamers and worth millions of XP. Syanna and her friends get pulled into political intrigue after a Mortemonde slave runs away to Sablereve with secrets that could undo the evil nation's Battledream dominance. Firebird is the best chance that Sablereve has to defy Mortemonde. However, Syanna's mother wants to give Firebird to Mortemonde's functionaries in the hopes of purchasing their lives back.
Like many sovereign nations in the Caribbean, Martinique's history as a colony is peppered with slave insurrections aimed at destroying the inhumane power structure and labour practices that took millions of lives over centuries. That history -- and its existential repercussions -- lives inside Battledream Chronicle. The use of misdirection and other subversive trickster tactics by Sablereve's top players against Mortemonde feels like the kinds of asymmetrical resistance strategies in oppressed peoples' freedom movements. The cast of characters all face different scenarios that make them choose between submission or revolution.
Slaves can win freedom and become high-level players in Mortemonde, but only if they betray people close to them and offer them up for eternal torture. When Syanna's friend Adam finds out that Mortemonde is holding his parent hostage, he replies by saying, "You came to the wrong island. My soul is not for sale." At a later point, the bad guys from Mortemonde turn off nano-implants that let Syanna and best friend Lytha teleport off Earth and into Battledream. With air too polluted to breathe for more than 36 hours, it's a death sentence that has painful, familiar echoes to real-world occurrences of environmental injustice.
The character animations in Battledream Chronicle feels creamy and lush, and a mix of visual approaches -- rough, blocky environmental textures, holographic user inputs, cel-shading -- make the movie feel like an appealing jaunt through video games' aesthetic evolution. The soundtrack hits its best marks with the movie's battle theme, a soaring dramatic track that adds African drums to orchestral sweeps. When the characters' shout out their attack names against that musical backdrop, you feel like some heavy stuff is about to go down.
Battledream Chronicle does harbour some cliched plot beats and overly familiar genre tropes, like parental death as motivation, but those flaws get redeemed by serving a larger metaphor. Bidard's film looks at cultural memory as a weapon and erasure of a people's history as a living death, resulting in a fiction that feels fertile enough to sprout many more stories.
Overall, Battledream Chronicle comes across as a fervent piece of hot-blooded syncretic Afrofuturist imagining. The boss fights, level tiers and special weapons/abilities from anime and video games get re-imagined in a different frame of reference and watching the movie feels like watching the first defiant steps of a new black diasporan science-fiction mythology. The movie just screened at the Other Worlds Film Festival in Austin; if you have the chance to see it, you really should.