Right now, a modern storytelling tool is tools of the past. What might have been an older technique, or a formerly technical limitation is now an aesthetic. Musical genres like chiptune which utilize 8-bit video game sound processing or video games that seek to emulate the heyday of Nintendo have carved a niche for themselves. The filmmakers behind the 2019 film The Spine of Night try to bring back an older animation technique, rotoscoping, for their film. Now rotoscoping as a technique isn’t entirely abandoned. Richard Linklater uses a variation of it for his animation projects such as Waking Life and Apollo 101⁄2: A Space Age Childhood. Still rotoscoping tended to mostly be used by animators like Ralph Bakshi in films like Wizards and Fire and Ice or in something like the 1981 film Heavy Metal. What was yesteryears cutting edge technique is today’s aesthetic choice.
The filmmakers of The Spine of Night purposely seem to be evoking Heavy Metal in this film. It takes place in a fantasy world where a witch named Tzod, trudges up a snowy mountain to meet a mysterious guardian. The film works like an anthology with the guardian and Tzod telling each other story about a mysterious blue flower. In one segment we see Tzod’s tribe and home brutally destroyed before we see her murdered for her blue flowers. In another, we see her killer achieve some kind of cosmic nirvana that allows him to become a tyrant. The guardian tells the story of the origin of his position as well as the flower. Each connecting segments progresses the story while also functioning as its own unit.
Visually The Spine of Night emulates that period where in the 70s and 80s, where animators outside of Disney attempted to make animation for “adults”. These films typically increased both the sexual content and the violence to ridiculous levels. This film isn’t much different. Tzod wanders around naked for the entirety of the film and so do some of the guys that show up. Characters get brutally murdered. Flesh gets sliced, diced, chopped, and chunked throughout. It looks pretty cool but the rotoscoped style is more of a style than an actual storytelling choice. The most visually interesting section of the movie is the origin of the flower. Told in silhouette and a limited color palette, this section of the movie stands out simply because it’s so distinct from the rest of the film. The rest of the film looks really inexpressive next to this section.
On top of this, the story is nothing that hasn’t been told before. If you’ve ever read an issue of Heavy Metal or even a comic from Image in the last fifteen years this doesn’t feel too different. This is a pretty basic story about good and evil. An evil all-powerful wizard conquers a land. Heroes make a last desperate stand against this evil. Someone pleads with an ancient warrior in their fight. This is all the kind of things you expect in a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid and with nothing you haven’t seen before.
It’s fine to evoke older stories or try to revive an aesthetic. If you’re going to do it. The filmmakers of The Spine of Night clearly have a passion for the work of Ralph Bakshi and the film Heavy Metal. Yet this film seems to mostly exist to tell folks how much they like those things. If you’re going to be in dialogue with something, at least say something of yourself or a new perspective into the conversation.