Hungary Magazine

CineClub: White Plastic Sky (2023), a haunting vision of post-apocalyptic Hungary

Budapest, Hungary – The new Hungarian rotoscope animated feature film White Plastic Sky offers environmentalist themes, a critique of illiberal family policy, and a captivating vision of post-apocalyptic Hungary.

White Plastic Sky had an extremely lengthy production. Art graduates Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó started working on the film in 2016. Seven years passed until its premiere at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. The film’s production took as long as it did due to its unique format: White Plastic Sky is a part-animated, part-live-action film.

The technology (primarily known from Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life) is called rotoscope animation: actors are filmed in a studio, then animators trace over the footage frame by frame, creating a unique-looking final image. The process is time-consuming even under normal circumstances, but Bánóczki and Szabó also had to face the additional challenge of a limited budget and the Covid pandemic.

Budapest, year 2123

In the end, this lengthy process is likely to have benefitted the film. Some of the supporting actors who filmed their scenes back in the late 2010s have since become household names in the Hungarian film world. Márton Patkós who played the leading role in HBO’s 2022 series Besúgó, and Renátó Olasz, who played the younger version of Jimmy Zámbó, in RTL’s recent hit, A Király both appear in the film in minor roles.

Additionally, environmentalism or the themes of the state’s intervention in the private lives of its citizens are arguably more topical than they were seven years ago. Thanks to this and its visuals, White Plastic Sky turned out to be one of the most unique Hungarian films from the past decade and it even has a chance to become the country’s first major international animated hit since 1986’s Cat City.

The film takes place in the post-apocalyptic world of 2123. The earth’s resources are scarce and it is impossible to stay alive for longer than a few days in its atmosphere. Humans can only survive in a handful of cities covered by a glass dome.

Budapest (or at least its Pest side) is one of these cities with its own regulations; in order to maintain a breathable atmosphere in the city, all individuals must be transformed into a tree at the age of 50 with a seed implant, invented by Hungarian scientist Professor Paulik (played by Géza D. Hegedűs).

The story follows a couple, 28-year-old Stefan (Tamás Keresztes) and 32-year-old Nóra (Zsófia Szamosi). Suffering from depression, Nóra decides to voluntarily sign up for an early seed implant. When Stefan finds out about her decision, he tries to find a way to reverse the procedure before it’s too late.

The film does not gloss over the morally questionable nature of Stefan’s actions. White Plastic Sky (unlike many other films would be) is fully aware that this is a violation of Nóra’s bodily autonomy and confronts this moral conundrum head-on. Stefan’s decision to try and rescue Nóra remains a source of tension between the characters throughout the film.

This is not the only theme in the film that resonates with current political issues. Plenty of other motifs can be read as a direct critique of illiberal Hungary’s flagship family policy that defines the family strictly as a unit involving a mother, a father, and children and has a ban on adoption for same-sex couples. White Plastic Sky makes it clear very early on that it is not going to pull any punches about this.

The first spoken lines in the film come from an activist declaring how valuable the bodies (note: not the personalities, the souls, or the lives) of all citizens are to the state. It is also implied that in the Budapest of 2123, the state regulates how many children its citizens can have or indeed if they can have any at all. It is also worth bearing in mind that the premise of the entire world the film is set in is that people are effectively killed once they are past the age of 50, the age when women tend to stop being able to have children.

An immersive film experience

The film also has clear environmentalist themes. Whether it’s worth to prioritise saving the human race over other organisms becomes the key question of the film’s final act. The selfishness of humans in how they treat other living beings on Earth are recurring elements, which the film not only expresses through its plot but shows through its imagery as well. The constant lack of greenery in the landscape and the sight of the empty basin of Lake Balaton say a thousand words.

The aesthetically pleasing presentation of White Plastic Sky’s many complex themes is one of the film’s greatest strengths. The world the animators created has an extremely unique atmosphere that captivates the viewer. Some of the strongest sequences in White Plastic Sky are slow contemplations of the landscape without dialogue. Thanks to the filmed actors, the movement of characters is extremely natural which is supplemented by the animation that adds an otherworldly element, resulting in a unique blend of styles that manages to remain consistent throughout most of the film.

Rotoscoping also has its disadvantages, however. While character movements, interactions, and wider shots of the world they inhabit work extremely well thanks to the technology, occasionally, nuanced facial expressions and minor muscle movements on actors’ faces the human brain has an extremely fine-tuned capacity to pick up social cues from are unable to come across during some close-ups.

Also, occasionally, some 3D animated elements in the film are so different in style to everything else presented that they can take the viewer out of the otherwise rather immersive experience. However, these issues happen quite rarely and they are unlikely to drastically affect the experience of the viewers who will remain captivated thanks to the otherwise impeccably animated world, the film’s eerie score, and the fascinating character dynamic of the two leads.

After its success during its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, White Plastic Sky is set to receive an international release and even a French-language dub. Though some of its political messages are likely to resonate more with Hungarian audiences, environmentalism and bodily autonomy are just as relevant topics everywhere as in Hungary.

Besides, its unique art style, immersive atmosphere, and interesting character dynamics make the film digestible for international audiences as well who are likely to be just as enriched by the cinematic experience White Plastic Sky offers as their Hungarian counterparts.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central European history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!