Good dystopian sci-fi speaks to the present in the language of the future. The Kitchen — which marks actor Daniel Kaluuya’s directorial debut — is fictional only in form.
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LONDON in the near future. Gentrification is a full-blown epidemic. The landscape is riddled with half-constructed skyscrapers and soulless capitalism. A single slum-estate called ‘The Kitchen’ survives, but only just. The chaotic multi-storied structure looks like the kind of lightless and dire cave that Bane grew up in. The resources have dwindled; the place is being squeezed into slow submission by a corrupt establishment. The supply of water, food and electricity is down to a trickle. But the impoverished residents stand firm, refusing to vacate, staying put in the face of police brutality.
The protagonist, Izi (Kane Robinson), lives in the Kitchen but wants out. He wants a better life, and if that means crossing over to the dark side — and saving money to live in one of those posh building projects that have demolished social housing — so be it. He’s ready to jump ship. But his conviction waivers with the arrival of Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman), an orphaned teen whose late mother was once romantically involved with Izi. It’s a classic kid-reforming-adult narrative. Will Izi become the Asterix of this Gaulish village while the Romans close in?
Good dystopian sci-fi speaks to the present in the language of the future. The Kitchen — which marks actor Daniel Kaluuya’s directorial debut — is only fictional in form. The film is smartly designed; there’s a perfectly unsettling dissonance between how it looks and what it says. The social commentary is not only prescient but pressing: The future is here, and the setting of the film is not very different from the current planet in the throes of over-development. Sci-fi today is just another medium of hyper-reality — and the film-making gets that. It doesn’t go overboard with its world-building. If anything, it strives to convey that all those post-apocalyptic scenarios being peddled by the genre for decades are no longer hypothetical.
The Kitchen is a potent ecological metaphor, of course. Izi ironically works for a funeral home that offers the poor a chance to turn their remains into fertile soil and plants. It’s a token gesture by a government that has brainwashed people into believing that — all the bullying and displacement aside — they care for the environment and the disenfranchised. In a not-so-parallel universe, the Kitchen represents the last bit of tribal land resisting acquisition. Or a last bit of forest land resisting industrialisation.
I like that The Kitchen doesn’t go all Mad Max: Fury Road on us. Much of the film unfolds within the last-ditch community. Despite that, the vision isn’t nihilistic and hopeless. Life — or the last signs of living on one’s terms — goes on. Black culture continues to thrive. A first kiss is fumbled. Bikes, dance and music roar. Benji initially hangs out with the kind of group that would usually be painted as trouble-makers in most films. But here they’re vigilantes that lash out at the system — they’re actually the good guys with more madness than method. They give him shelter, but don’t force recruitment upon him. Their ‘violence’ is almost necessary in context of where they are.
The Izi-Benji equation is slow-burning, almost meditative, because Izi is technically a sell-out on the path to salvation. A child reminds him of the fact that he can leave the Kitchen, but the Kitchen will never leave him. They’re not rebels or victims; they’re simply humans exercising their right to identity. The cast does a fine job of occupying the space with both ferocity and conflict. The cinematography evokes a curious marriage of spirit and dystopia — it isn’t bleak and edgy, but it’s also not a sunny subversion of erasure and fear. There’s almost a jungle-like energy to the place, where corners and metal doors look more welcoming than people.
Which brings me to the timing and cultural anatomy of The Kitchen. In a world infected by growing fascism, religious extremism and genocides being labelled as wars, the film feels like an urgent ode to the moral complexity of bravery. Izi could be a Palestinian grappling with the consequences of escaping Gaza. He could be a Muslim dreaming of leaving India (the clanging of kitchen utensils by the residents to signal raids brings to mind the state-sponsored banging of pots and pans by Indians during the 2020 lockdown). He could also be a Ukrainian trying to find asylum elsewhere. There is no winning for someone like him, regardless of whether he stays or leaves. A part of him will always die. Home is where the heartbreak is. To its credit, the film doesn’t end; it embraces the continuity of persecution and tragedy. After all, the headiness of history being written is no match for the danger of history repeating itself.