Opens Fri., June 13 at Sundance and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes.
Sci-fi, like real estate and society in general, is headed in two unequal directions. Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow cost some $175 million. This modest sleeper from William Eubank, previously the director of 2011’s Love, is a more thrifty, handmade affair—The Blair Witch Project gone to Area 51. Three brainy MIT students are driving west to Cal Tech when they decide to investigate some sort of Internet hacker/troll named Nomad. Bad idea. Their leader, Nic (Aussie TV actor Brenton Thwaites of Home and Away), wakes up in an underground government bunker—a rotary-dial relic of the Cold War, it seems, suggesting both Lost and The Twilight Zone.
Nic is a bit of a prick, the kind of 2,400-score SAT savant who immediately begins to question his quarantine or captivity or whatever it is that brings him under the solemn scrutiny of Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne), leader of “the transition team,” who never removes his ominous clean suit. It takes about 30 minutes to reach this underground facility and about another 30 to regain the surface, where further surprises await. (I preferred the suspenseful first hour, before the big story jolts.) Eubank sets up a puzzle for us to solve, even as Nic is trying to decipher a different mystery. He questions Dr. Damon’s scientific methods while we begin to doubt Nic’s sanity. Is that really his buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp) speaking to him through the air ducts—or a paranoid voice from his own head? Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) is no help, spending half the movie strapped to a gurney, which results in an amusingly slow escape scene: one patient wheeling another down endless, dingy corridors. Nic’s determined problem-solving is more concrete than The Signal’s philosophical detour into Plato’s cave. Certain knots in this story cannot be unsnarled.
Visiting Seattle for SIFF, Eubank told me, “I wanted to make a movie about Area 51 that didn’t ever say it was about Area 51.” (In fact, Jonah only suspects that’s where the trio is being held.) If anything, for his three rationalist heroes, Area 51 is more of a murky concept, a signifier of the realm where science breaks down, he says. “I think it still houses a lot of what-ifs. It’s very representative of the unknown and government secrets and weird tests.” Nic and company see in the place what they, having watched many sci-fi movies, expect to see. Dr. Damon merely reinforces that expectation, among other forms of covert assistance that he provides his three subjects. If they’re his unwitting lab rats, so we are Eubank’s.