Photon opens with conventional, generic scenes. Some people are moving around the house, an old man is sitting in front of the TV with a mug in his trembling hands. His attention is focused on the screen, on which a journalist (Karolina Kominek) and a scientist (Andrzej Chyra) sit at the table. Although he is the protagonist, the man will remain anonymous throughout the rest of the film. His character and private life fade into the background. The molecular biologist played by Chyra is first and foremost the narrator who gives the viewer a lecture on the history of life, illustrated with rendered visualizations.
The conversation with the journalist is merely a formal point of departure in Photon. Throughout most of the film, the screen is dominated by CGI and the actors appear only briefly. Although an outline of a plot is present, the film draws extensively on the documentary convention. Thanks to the narrator's charisma, it has more in common with documentary TV series like Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, written by the famed physicist, than with fiction films. Norman Leto's inspirations include films by Richard Feynman – another physicist and science populariser. The artist said:
Seven or so years ago, when I was still working on Sailor, I started watching simple Russian pop-science animations from the 1950s, which, for example, schematically portrayed the atom's structure. They were well-done, messy and drawn in Russian-like jittery style. I jumped between YouTube videos until I discovered Richard Feynman. […] I highly recommend the series of TV interviews with Feynman […] sitting in a blue armchair. These conversations entranced me and after watching them, I began to think about the present form of Photon.
In the convention of an interview, Leto plays with cultural clichés and contrasts. He portrays the scientist as a lone genius, so beloved in pop culture. He contrasts him with another stereotype – the character of a naïve female journalist. However, when she asks him about his job, we are brought back to earth – she receives an explanation which is very mundane, close to reality. Being a molecular biologist or any other scientist in fact means first and foremost of filling tedious grant applications.
Photon's screen time is dominated by CGI, whose creation drained the lion's share of the film's several-years-long development process. Although they portray the current state of science knowledge in the most faithful way possible, they are not devoid of stipulation and fantasy. This is how Leto describes his consultations with physicists:
[…] how a visual artist, wanting to depict everything, is supposed to talk with a physicist thinking in formulas? For example: they explained to me the shift of the electron's spin. 'Okay, but how does it all look like?', I asked, to which they replied: 'We don’t understand the question'. 'Well, how am I supposed to depict it in the film?', 'Oh, you can depict it however you like, it doesn’t look like anything at all'.
In those few cases, objective processes are visualized on certain examples, thus perturbing the narrative's academic style and introducing an emotional note. From time to time, the inclusions are subtle, like when the narrator explains how friction works using the example of a shopping bag putting strain on a finger. We then see a scene starring only Leto, returning home from shopping and opening the door of the house known from his previous film Sailor. Another scene depicts Wojciech Bąkowski – a visual artist, musician and poet – while writing a poem on the tram. Aside from such nods, Leto also allows himself to introduce more personal inclusions.
When explaining genetical processes, he also shows what happens when disorders appear on the molecular level. When Leto describes how the Parkinson's disease works, he describes it on a concrete example. One which is not coincidental – Stanisław, the man afflicted by Parkinson's disease, the one we have seen in the opening scene, is the artist's father. In the film, he is the father of the protagonist (who, in part, is the film author's alter ego). The camera accompanies Stanisław around his house and in the garden, peeks at him during his everyday actions which become more and more difficult for the diseased man. The way the character is filmed is contrasted with the down-to-earth explanation of the disease's nature. Unlike the static interview scenes, it is full of close-ups and shots made by hand, which formally puts it close to Dogma 95 films. Ultimately, this segment became the artist's farewell to his father who died before the premiere of the film's final cut.
In its final phase, Photon strides into the domain of science fiction. The scientist, pressured by the journalist, begins to speculate about the future. It seems quite conventional at first: the usual elements of most of the futurological visions are in place as he speaks of metropolises dotted with skyscrapers and filled with flying cars. The more we move into the future, however, the less Leto's depiction of the future resembles our current times (just dressed in the costume of futuristic technology). In the optimistic scenario, humanity manages to resolve the issue of global social inequality, but it is still thanks to technology.
Over time, the Internet – the narrator speculates – will permeate the reality to such degree that it will become a necessity, just like air. Gradually more and more people will give up their physical bodies to transfer their consciousness into a new, more advanced virtual reality with servers operated by autonomous machines. The last men clinging to their physical shells will live 'as Aborigines did'. In this aspect, Leto's vision of the future is similar to the one depicted in Stanisław Lem's Fiasco. From The Invincible – another novel by the Polish writer – he seems to borrow the vision of autonomous machines which begin to undergo evolution in the manner of biological organisms. Such vision of the future, dominated by technology to the point where humans renounces their bodies to become part of a separate organism, a self-sufficient network, is usually depicted in pop culture as dystopian, one example being The Matrix. Leto avoids being judgmental. Just like life itself and the laws that govern it – it is neither bad nor good, it simply exists.
- Photon. Scenario and directing: Norman Leto, cinematography: Michał Marczak, music: Przemysław Wierzbicki, Przemysław Książek, Igor Szulc, montage: Norman Leto. Starring: Andrzej Chyra, Danuta Banach, Kaja Werbanowska, Iwo Piotrowski, Karolina Kominek.
Written in Polish by Piotr Policht, Jan 2018, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Apr 2018