Sunday, July 29, 2018

Island Zero (2017)

Warning: I’m going to spoil quite a bit of this nonsense!

A somewhat isolated – it’s a one ferry a day kind of place – island in Maine mostly populated by fisher folk gets in a spot of trouble. At first, the ocean wildlife around the place disappears. Quickly, all communication to the mainland cuts off, the ferry doesn’t arrive, and the place’s electricity goes down. The fishers attempting to go to the mainland for help by boat disappear, never to be heard from again. Then, people are starting to die, ending up bloody skeletons. Our protagonists – mostly a marine biologist (Adam Wade McLaughlin) with a tragic past and a theory about what’s going on,  and a former military doctor (Laila Robbins) with a trauma of her own – try to find out what’s going on and save the day, but an Evil Conspiracy™ by THEM wants to weaponize the invisible sea monsters that will turn out to be what’s killing off the populace and is up to Evil Conspiracy things.

As much as I like the idea of a successful novelist mother writing a script for her son’s debut as a director, I can’t help but wonder if an actual screenwriter wouldn’t have been a better choice for Josh Gerritsen’s movie. While screenwriting and the writing of crime novels certainly share quite a bit of common ground, the required skill sets, history has taught us, aren’t necessarily identical. Which is my polite way of saying that Gerritsen’s script is really not very good, copying the standard monster movie formula, adding a brain dead conspiracy subplot, a smidgen of Deeps Ones, and making quite a few SyFy Original movies look rather grand in comparison. Let’s talk about the conspiracy for a second: apparently, THEY have known about the perhaps sentient invisible sea monsters killing people for quite some time, and want to use the opportunity of the island attack to convince the creatures (of whose language THEY know half a dozen words) to become their military allies, offering the creatures what they would have eaten anyway before pointing them to the Middle East, one speculates, so THEY have stationed exactly one idiot on the island to pursue this genius plan. As you do.

Most of that crap is used to fill up the film’s final twenty minutes or so; most of its first hour does contain neither hide nor hair of any actual creature action, for the first two acts see (or rather don’t see) practically all of the action happening off-screen, testing the audience’s patience with many a scene of actors making their way through reams of stiff, awkward dialogue. Most of the actors involved do have quite a bit of experience – if mostly not in bigger roles – but there’s nary a believable note in any of the performances (Robins is closest to feeling like an actual human being). There are awkward line deliveries, grimacing standing in for the physical expression of emotions, awkward pauses, more awkward grimacing, and a script that clearly seems to think its passel of walking talking clichés is enough to keep an audience awake until it bothers to do something with the monsters. Which would be okay if the monster-less scenes were interesting, suspenseful or full of mystery, but alas, the best thing the first hour here gets up to is being awkward and unintentionally funny and inviting the patient viewer to a game of cliché bingo. Note to whom it may concern: not everyone can be Val Lewton.

To be fair, making a monster movie with invisible monsters that don’t interact with anything for a good hour or so is highly cost-effective filmmaking as well as genius in its simplicity. The (repeat it with me:) awkward and stilted moments of gore – let’s not even speak of the action sequences – late in the film also suggest it’s for the best the film doesn’t contain more of them. Directing this sort of thing is clearly not Gerritsen’s forte.

You have to compliment the film or its unwillingness to use a nailed-down camera, though. There’s hardly any scene where the direction doesn’t at least attempt to do something visually interesting; unfortunately, this doesn’t come off as a director with style creating a mood of dread but as someone randomly positioning his camera in non-standard ways. This results in a film that feels off in one way or the other for most of its running time, acting, direction and writing turning this monster movie into quite an example of how not to do it.

However, the whole awkward affair is very close to become something special, not so much so bad it is good (as frequent readers will know, I don’t really believe in that phrase) but something nearly using the rules of standard genre filmmaking badly enough to become interesting as an off-beat experience. It’s not quite there for my taste, but this halfway interesting state is certainly a better place for a movie to end up in than boring competence.

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