Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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At The Picture Show
August 2018

Extinction

Dream a little invasion

On fates, futures, premonitions, aliens, and how Extinction makes that all so banal

Extinction
Netflix
Director: Ben Young
Screenplay: Spenser Cohen and Brad Caleb Kane
Starring: Michael Peña, Lizzy Caplan, Erica Tremblay, Amelia Crouch, Mike Colter, Lex Shrapnel, Emma Booth and Israel Broussard
TV-MA / 1 hour, 35 minutes / 2.35:1
Available on Netflix
(out of four)

Extinction makes exactly one case for its own existence. It doesn't commit wholeheartedly to that case - largely because of how it's structured as a narrative left turn, explained in flashbacks and voiceover, and too late in the brisk runtime to be explored with any depth - but at least it's a neat surprise.

I can't say anything about that, of course. I can't say anything about the movie's only substantial area of interest. Which is probably just as well, since most of the rest of Extinction goes through overfamiliar motions in overfamiliar fashion. Talking about what I can't talk about might actually make Extinction sound interesting and fun, which it most certainly is not.

It's a surprise to see Ben Young's name attached to this. The Australian director is coming off his impressive debut feature Hounds of Love, a film built on commonplace genre elements but which stood out thanks to Young's thick, eerie mood and vivid sense of psychological turmoil. So with Extinction, it's not a matter of overly conventional genre material failing him. If anything, I'd expect him to be able to make this tale of dread, premonition and invasion into something completely its own.

Instead, this is very much your standard piece of third-rate science-fiction. The production values are strong, the cast is solid, yet it has all the distinction of one of those direct-to-video sci-fi thrillers from the late 1990s that would have starred Dolph Lundgren and Christopher Lambert. Only with less personality. (That this is still a masterpiece compared to recent Netflix sci-fi offerings like Tau and The Cloverfield Paradox is neither here nor there, but I suppose credit where it's due.)

The way this movie goes through the motions seems especially curious in retrospect. Because while the broad strokes are pretty ordinary - big city, married couple with two kids, alien invasion, war, survival - the script opens up certain avenues that seem ripe for exploration. Memory, fate, control, conspiracy, even prophecy. But Young and screenwriters Spenser Cohen and Brad Caleb Kane never do more work than they have to. They begin with a Take Shelter-like setup, with Peter (Michael Peña) becoming haunted by recurring visions of a pending invasion and the guerrilla war that follows. It's not linear - he just gets flashes. Explosions, corpses, an armed resistance. Some faces he recognizes, some he doesn't. The pieces are clear but not the puzzle. Apocalyptic anxieties aren't necessarily uncommon - but Peter is certain these are not just paranoid dreams. They're too real. Or maybe he's just losing it. His wife Alice (Lizzy Caplan) seems to think so. He's been such an absentee husband and father lately that she's been urging him to go see a specialist. Couldn't hurt.

One day after an episode at work, he finally decides to take the therapeutic plunge. He shows up for his appointment - the doctor's office is in a sparkling corporate complex that has a sort of alienating serenity to it - but a fellow patient gives him second thoughts. He says he's been seeing those visions, too. He says the doctors are going to wipe those thoughts away, make them forget what they've been seeing in their dreams. They're hiding something, he says.

That's more than enough to change Peter's mind.

This all sounds eerie and foreboding on paper, except it's just ... not. Hounds of Love was so psychologically taut that the premise of Extinction seems like it would be catnip for Young. The film's very backbone is its main character's subconscious. Fear, madness, disorientation. But none of it ever takes hold as the unyielding internal force that's supposedly weighing so heavily on this guy's life. In fact, there's no real force at all. His visions read merely as information - as signals to the audience of what to expect from the plot rather than personal experiences that simply haven't taken place yet. To Peter, experiences are exactly what they are - but Young's approach is too distancing. These dreams come across like a trailer for the second half of the movie.

When the event finally comes - the glowing lights of approaching ships appearing portentously in the night sky - Peter and Alice are hosting a party at their condo in celebration of Alice's recent promotion. He's on the balcony with a neighbor friend Ray (Lex Shrapnel), whose wife and kids are still inside. It's Ray who first mentions the lights - a brief validation for Peter that he is not going insane, a feeling replaced immediately by the terrified knowledge of what he now knows is about to go down any second.

After the movie hilariously kills off the only other set of characters we'd gotten to know - Ray and his wife and kids, the only close friends our lead family seems to have - Peter, Alice and their two daughters make their way through the half-demolished city and meet up with Peter's boss David (Luke Cage's Mike Colter), who seems to be leading some sort of resistance movement and quickly ushers his new guests to safety.

There will be answers, of course. Big ones. By this point the purpose of Peter's visions has begun coming into focus. I should stop myself here; if I go any further, I'll be describing a much more interesting movie.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.


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