A movie that is just sort of ok is a movie critic’s worst enemy. A good movie gets a critic excited, it makes them remember the things that they love about going to the movies. It touches something primal in them, it scratches the itch that keeps us sitting in the dark. A bad movie, meanwhile, at least fills us with the fire, the indignant rage of seeing the art form we care about treated with disdain, laziness, or general incompetence. It allows us a degree of measured, cathartic rage.
But a movie that is ok, that skirts the line between good and bad, that operates with competence and neither rises or falls to any level of intensity of quality… well that leaves a critic with a sense of loss. I see enough movies nowadays that I feel a bit like a junkie – only the highs or lows will do; the in-between is of no used to me. However, I can admit that though I might be ambivalent toward you, you might be of use to someone else.
So what am I supposed to make of a movie like you? There isn’t any specific reason for me not to recommend you to anyone who is interested in you. After all, on the basis of your status as a prequel/remake of a classic horror film (itself a remake of a classic horror film) you actually clear the very low bar set for you with ease.
It doesn’t hurt that your tale is ripe for horrific and fiendish thrills. A group of researchers find a spaceship crashed in the Antarctic ice and bring in an American paleontologist to examine the remains of its pilot, found frozen in the ice. Unfortunately, when the ice begins to thaw the creature is unleashed, and the researchers are ill=prepared to deal with the shape-shifting monstrosity that is picking them off one by one.
This is a plot that has it all: an isolated location far from safety or aid; strangers forced to trust one another in the face of insurmountable odds; a constant, pervading sense of paranoia and distrust; a monster that is grotesque in-and-of itself, but also creates terrifying human abominations. In fact, both your direction and cinematography add layers of menace and portent to your already uneasy setting. Even your score adds a subtler undercurrent of menace to the proceedings than one would expect in this modern age of loud noises filling in for real scares.
Added to this surprisingly high level of talent behind the camera is a greater-than-expected level of charisma and talent in front of the camera. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is both beautiful and affecting as your heroine, the quick-witted and pragmatic paleontologist. Playing as her male foil is Joel Edgerton as a gruff helicopter pilot who might just be her only real ally. These two leads create characters who, while not really deserving of our empathy, at least command some level of concern and likeability. These are characters that we don’t want to see die (though the character I most loved was Lars, played by Jørgen Langhelle, as a nearly silent but endlessly capable bruiser).
But then if all of this ostensibly important stuff was done right, and done well, what is your failing? Honestly, you just aren’t scary. At all. Which is weird, because the monster, both in its CGI and practical forms, is weird and disgusting and conceptually terrifying. But for some reason the alien isn’t enough to add dread and fear to the mix, and the potential of this “12 Angry Men meets Aliens” setup is never really delivered. The failing is intangible and hard-to-pinpoint, but it is there.
If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that the reason behind this lack of fear is the previously-stated lack of character depth and empathy. If we as an audience aren’t firmly invested in the future, past, and relationships of a character, how are we supposed to fear for them on a level beyond basic human identification? Terror comes from a threat that reaches beyond just not wanting to see someone die, it comes from a concern for something greater than bodily harm. On a script level, these characters were never meant to engender a fear for their lives, just a vague sense of concern for their safety.
So sure, you make a good show of being an action film with a sci-fi bent, but given the promise of your premise and poise, I don’t think that is really enough for you to rest on. You have thrills-a-plenty, you have action set pieces that engage and entertain, but I was never really scared of anything that was happening. And in a film that so readily positions itself to be a scary, frightening, terrifying time at the movies, that is a big, big problem. You should have striven a bit harder for real, bone-chilling terror. Without that visceral ingredient, you’re just an ok film, instead of a potentially good one.
Is it fair to judge a movie based solely on potential? Not really. So in the end I’ll leave say this about you: if someone down for a movie with lots of thrills, good action, interesting creature effects, and photogenic leads, you are the film for them. If they want a terrifying experience laced with paranoid horror, they might do better checking out your fore-bearer.
Thanks for the ambivalent time,
Brian J. Roan