Commerce is a wheel beneath which much is crushed. And once that wheel is in motion, there is no stopping it. Not for epistemological discourse. Not for environmental factors. Not even for late-stage stomach cancer. In Kim Nguyen’s unorthodox The Hummingbird Project, there simply ain’t no mountain high enough, no river wide enough to keep the Zaleski cousins from installing a direct line of high-speed fiber cable from New York City to Kansas. The wheels of commerce roll on and they intend to be its primary highway.
The Canadian-Belgium techno-thriller saw its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival where it was sold to The Orchard, a fledgling upstart distribution company with titles like The Hero and Hunt for the Wilderpeople to its name. The Orchard seems a fitting home for the hard-to-define title, slipping in nicely with its catalog of exotic, not-quite-commercial offerings.
Nguyen’s movie is not an easy sell. It’s a true tale made equally of drive and delusion that speaks to the personal price of legacy. To honor its subjects with as brief a description as possible, it’s a movie about men chasing milliseconds.
The Hummingbird Project refers to Anton and Vincent Zaleski’s goal of achieving 16-millisecond roundtrip travel time from the heart of Wall Street to the Kansas stock exchange, the speed at which a hummingbird flaps its wings. For speed is the lubricant of greed and anyone buying and selling on the market will always, always, always go with the fastest option. Which, in turn, translates to overnight riches for those who own the fastest lane on the information superhighway. And to the victor goes the spoils.
Drama is mined in the personal trials of the two cousins leading the charge. Sons to Russian immigrants, the Zaleskis see themselves as the Davids to mainstream corporate’s Goliath (embodied her by a powerful Salma Hayek) but in all sincerity, they yearn to be Goliaths themselves. Obsession comes to dominate Vincent, who has put business pursuits before his deteriorating health, as paranoia comes to haunt the already unstable Anton. Their drive to build and optimize their 1,400-mile line threatens to push them to prison and the graveyard.
A bald and schleppy Alexander Skarsgård hunkers around like a square-shouldered Neanderthal as Anton Zaleski. An intellectual brute and coding Rain Man. Curved like a question mark and always the smartest (and most awkward) guy in the room. He stands in physical and social contrast with the perennially motormouthed Jesse Eisenberg, who’s the wheeling-and-dealing spinster behind the antisocial number-crunching genius. Both actors have a lot to offer within their nuanced, challenging performances and made up a great bulk of the feature’s vortex appeal.
There may not be a ton of crossover mainstream appeal but the narrative is odd, and technical, and industry-specific, and jargon-laden and Nyugen dresses it up with an occasional meditative slow-mo landscape shot, perhaps to tease out the perpendicular nature of technology and Mother Earth. Her direction is at times as alien as the technobabble loosed from Anton’s lips but it’s also warm and thoughtful – you can feel a glowing woman’s touch on what could have been an otherwise icy, detached telling.
The viewer can’t help but imagine what these two could achieve had they put their intellect to better use. One can’t buy legacy and this seems to be their principal driving force. Land and people though, they can be purchased. As the Zaleskis buy out access to land under the guise of bringing prosperity to communities, six-foot-deep subterranean routes earn landowners hefty checks from New England to the heartland. The wheels of commerce keep on churning. But The Hummingbird Project at its core is about the Zaleski’s battle to leave a legacy. Even if it lay buried six feet underground.
CONCLUSION: An outside-the-box film about outside-the-box thinkers, ‘The Hummingbird Project’’s tech-heavy tale of milliseconds, obsession, legacy, and a 1,400-mile uninterrupted fiber cable has appeals outside mainstream sensibilities but appeals nonetheless, especially in the performance department.
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