Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Anomaly (2014)

It’s the near future, when cells and tablets will be semi-transparent and people really love blueish glowing things. PTSD-suffering ex-soldier Ryan (Noel Clarke) suddenly finds himself in a van next to a shackled boy (Art Parkinson) who tells him something about having been kidnapped by men in red masks. Ryan unshackles the boy and flees with him, the kidnappers in hot pursuit. However, it’s clear something more strange than “just” lost time is going on with our protagonist. For one, one of the kidnappers (Ian Somerhalder) seems to have Ryan’s cell number, and for two, there’s a red mask in his pocket.

Before things can become any clearer, Ryan loses consciousness and again awakes in circumstances he can’t explain, again close to the kidnapper with whom he seems to be on very friendly terms, and clearly after enough time has passed for him to grow a beard. That’s not the last time this sort of thing will happen to our hero, and it will take a bit until he – as well as the audience – will find his bearings. It is, not to get all spoiler-y, not a good situation he’s in, and it’ll take quite a few desperate acts for him to get out of it again. Maybe he’ll even have to go into the world saving business.

By now, it’s pretty obvious that Noel Clarke – The Anomaly’s director, lead, and writer of “additional material” whatever that means – has ambitions to be a bit more than the guy who played a semi-companion on Doctor Who and did minor to medium parts in various indie and genre productions afterwards. I suspect a part of the motivation here might be that it’s still difficult for actors of colour who aren’t very very lucky or incredibly talented – if not both - to get actual straight up leading parts, and a good way to change that is to make films of one’s own where the degree of creative control is certainly higher than for an actor without too much clout. Which sounds like a good plan to me. Unfortunately, until now, I wasn’t convinced I as a viewer would get any movies I find actually worth seeing out of it.

That’s changed with the film at hand. Sure, The Anomaly is a pretty typical low budget SF/action film with quite a few of the expected clichés – the improbably helpful prostitute, the evil rich men, the Ugly American spies, and so on – but it’s a generally well made one that uses its set-up in clever and inventive ways, taking the conceit of Ryan only ever having about ten minutes time to get anything done and his foes realizing this and working against it to keep the pacing well up, with no wasted second. Consequently, the film feels very tight, keeping to the rules it has set up for itself and then making the most out of the opportunity to make a movie where all connections between scenes have to be made by audience and main character alike through inference. I’m actually not sure this approach would work with less generic characters than those we encounter here, for the film’s main gimmick just doesn’t lend itself to this complexity in characterisation, and instead of a film about a man acting quite heroically in a highly stressful situation and punching and shooting other people a lot we’d get one about a guy looking around confusedly while barely comprehensible things happen around him.

And though that could go down well with the art house crowd – and on a patient day, with me – that way perhaps an interesting SF film about the nature of identity and memory lies, yet also complete commercial disaster. So instead, we have a film that fits the “clever low budget genre movie” description to a T, and that’s fine with me too.

Apart from its general cleverness and tightness – and that would be more than enough for me to appreciate and recommend The Anomaly – there are other elements here I find worth praising. First and foremost, I love the economical way Clarke presents the near future this takes place in as the near future, putting exactly as much FUTURE SCIENCE in as his budget allows, with a good understanding of the appropriate signifiers (see-through stuff! blue glowing stuff! a freakish skyline!) and no attempt to do more than he can actually afford to show.

Knowing how much one can do on a budget and what the important elements are one needs to show or suggest to keep the plot – and a film’s future - convincing for what one wants and needs it to do is particularly important in a film like this. In fact, I’m convinced what kills a lot of budget SF action movies isn’t so much that they are a bit generic, but that they don’t seem to understand when and where they need to put telling details into their worlds to make them look just convincing and living enough. Nobody, well, nobody who actually likes movies like The Anomaly, expects a realistically believable future – what we expect is a future we can believe in as the background to whatever punching and shooting the film has to offer. If there’s a bit more to it, like it is here, that’s just all the better.

However, before I oversell The Anomaly, I have to point out its biggest weakness. Although Clarke is generally a competent contemporary director (that is, a director who knows and uses comparatively state of the art tricks but doesn’t overdo them so as to not make his film unwatchable with all the shaking, the whooshing and the yellow and teal), he is at his weakest in the action scenes, as a director as well as an actor. In most of the melee fights, he utterly overdoes that thing where a movie stops for second or so to then speed up a little, supposedly to help the audience appreciate the physical impact of a punch (or in this case, of every third punch anyone lands), and to hide that nobody involved is a very practiced screen fighter. In practice, it just looks a bit tacky, and instead of hiding the lack of screen fighting prowess of Clarke and Somerhalder, it rather emphasises it. Whatever happened to stuntmen? It’s not catastrophically bad, but it does drag the film down from what could be excellent to good, leaving a curious bit of incompetence in a film that is anything but otherwise.

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