Sunday, November 6, 2016

ARQ (2016)

Some time in the near future. The world as we know it has nearly collapsed under various environmental crises, an energy crisis, and a viral epidemic. Evil megacorp TORUS is trying to get everything that’s left of humanity under its boot heels for crushing purposes.

The film doesn’t frontload this much exposition, though. Most everything – the world, character relations, the past – we’ll learn in due time through bits and pieces contained in the flow of the narrative. Instead, ARQ starts with a guy named Renton (Robbie Amell), and a woman named Hannah (Rachael Taylor) waking up in bed together (two very different superhero universes finally united). Soon, three masked and armed men break into the bedroom, drag the two off into what will turn out to be Renton’s lab, and try to find out where Renton hides his “scribs” (or maybe “scrips”), which seems to be what is used for money now. Little do the masked men know that the real treasure in the house is the project Renton took with him when he left TORUS (for whom he once worked as a weapon designer), the titular ARQ. It’s an eternal energy source running on perpetual motion (seriously).

As it will turn out once Renton gets himself killed and wakes up that same morning next to Hannah again the ARQ also dabbles in some other things its inventor didn’t really know about – like trapping everyone in the house in a time loop, though at first, only Renton is able to remember what happened during the last loop.

Apparently, Netflix is putting a little bit of money into getting out a low budget genre film every few months now - see also Mike Flanagan’s brilliant Hush. Hopefully, this approach will provide more filmmakers with opportunities and choices lying somewhere between the most rigid studio structures and the freedom and lack of funds of complete independence, though this one doesn’t exactly scream of a high budget either.

On first look, Tony Elliott’s ARQ doesn’t actually seem all that promising. Time loops are nice and all, but by now, every genre TV show running long enough has an episode of the sort, and the basic idea isn’t exactly an ideal springboard for a narrative that diverges from standard operating procedures, so I don’t really expect too much excitement or surprises from this sort of thing anymore. However, after quickly and surehandedly establishing the basics, ARQ does indeed play with some of the ground rules of its sub-genre in exciting and surprising ways. Most of them I’m not going to spoil here, but one fine and early example is that, unlike most time loop media, the film quickly sees its protagonists realizing how to end the loop they are trapped in. At that point, they begin fighting to end the loop with the right results rather than any which way they can. This doesn’t sound like a terribly big change to proceedings, but in a comparatively narrowly defined sub-genre like this one, small changes can work wonders.

Particularly since Elliott’s because uses all the little twists he gives to clichés and standard tropes very effectively, tightening the noose around the characters, escalating tension, and keeping the audience guessing in ways that manage to be clever yet not feel too contrived for an audience willing to buy into ARQ’s basic concepts. This is a small film that seems to know exactly how much of this it can reasonably pull off, and then just goes on to do it in an effective and engaging manner, with technical competence, and a bit of style.
ARQ is the kind of smart, small, and self-contained type of low budget movie that won’t shake the world, but that does make my corner in it a happier one.

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