Synopsis – A father has a recurring dream of losing his family. His nightmare turns into reality when the planet is invaded by a force bent on destruction. Fighting for their lives, he comes to realize an unknown strength to keep them safe from harm.
My Take – It seems like Netflix is slowly becoming a kind of savior for the film industry and its major studios. Hot on heels of the news about how the streaming giant has acquired Warner Bros’ Mowgli, the long in development grittier take on the Jungle Book story from Andy Serkis, just like Paramount‘s abysmal Cloverfield Paradox, it seems like a disturbing trend is emerging. Joining this club with their latest hand out is this Brad Young directed from Universal, who despite an initial release date of January 26th, 2018, was suddenly removed from the release schedule.
Which isn’t surprising considering how the film was in a long and arduous development, with writer Spenser Cohen’s original screenplay being featured on 2013 Black List of the year’s best un-produced scripts in Hollywood, along with James McAvoy and director Joe Johnson attached to the project till 2016, only to be replaced by Michael Peña and Brad Young, respectively. While I too personally look down upon most Netflix releases, but considering they released films like Okja, Spectral and Annihilation, it seemed like the platform had finally found a genre it was getting comfortable with. Unfortunately, it turns out the studio made the right call.
On the surface, Netflix‘s latest sci-fi thriller is exactly the type of genre film many claim Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Instead of taking inspiration from some preexisting intellectual property, like an acclaimed comic book, forgotten television series, or bestselling novel, it’s an original science-fiction story. It stars two charming actors, Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan, and is helmed by an exciting, emerging filmmaker, Australian director Ben Young, who made 2016’s horror skin-crawler Hounds of Love. Sounds fun, right? There’s only one problem, i.e. the film is actually quite a drag to watch. Feeling more like an episode of Black Mirror on steroids, meaning that, yes, there’s a twist at the end, but the execution is so mediocre that you actually end up never caring about the concept. While there is quite a chance that fans of the genre will mostly enjoy it, I just can’t say the same about the rest.
Set in the distant future, the story follows Peter (Michael Peña), a working-class man, employed in an ill-defined factory, where he reports to his kind boss, David (Mike Colter), locking in at 9 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m. to go home to his wife, Alice (Lizzy Caplan), who works in a better job redesigning tunnels, and his two daughters (Amelia Crouch and Erica Tremblay). Like most fathers and husbands, Peter too is a perpetual disappointment to them and constantly apologizing.
The only interesting thing about him is he’s constantly having nightmares about an alien invasion, nightmares which get so bad that he’s passing out for hours at a time and missing play dates with his kids. While his unwanted nightmares are beginning to affect his relationship with his family, Peter too begins to question his sanity, until one day at his house party which also includes their friendly neighbors Ray (Lex Shrapnel) and Samantha (Emma Booth), an actual relentless alien attack begins to destroy the Earth. And as the invaders’ assault progresses, Peter is forced to find both the strength to protect his family and an understanding of who he truly is.
The premise of the film is deceptively simple, as like I said above it is basically a Black Mirror episode jumped up with film-style and a few visions thrown in. Though it’s not quite a bait-and-switch, the plot of the film does away with what initially appears to be its central question, Is Peter character crazy or is an invasion actually coming?, really quickly. For about 20 minutes we get some light Close Encounters-style family tension, with Alice telling Peter he should seek help from the equivalent of a therapist in the film’s vaguely retro-futuristic word and his daughters wondering why their father is acting so erratic. Then we get our answer that Peter was right. The film does provide an original take on alien invasion, which is one of the more refreshing elements of the film, and like most good science-fiction stories, it holds up a mirror to our own society.
It questions the implications to some of our choices about technology in an interesting way. Does the film present a glimpse into the way it could all end someday? Well, perhaps. In theory, this is a smart reversal of audience expectations, a fresh spin on a familiar formula, and it almost works during the section of the film that finds Peter and Alice attempting to escape from their apartment building. Even though, director Young keeps the visual palette too dark and shrouded in shadows throughout the siege, it’s clear he has a knack for finding tension in confined spaces. There’s a sequence where one of the Predator-like creature’s attempts to break through a door and a child is left hiding under a table that conjures up some queasy suspense.
Many of the action scenes in the film are needlessly brutal and bloody, particularly as Peter learns to wield the alien gun and gets some real firepower, but the apartment material delivers solid, mindless thrills. But the direction for the most part is bland, as director Young doesn’t bring anything new to the table narratively and the production value, save for the exceptions mentioned above, are quite subpar. Worst of all and most noticeable, the VFX are horrendous. Where the film lost me was with its script. Following the invasion this film becomes of those films where, to keep the action going, everyone has to make bad decisions at almost all times. So, sure, the daughter has to emerge from her hiding place to get her doll. And sure, we’ll stay here and shoot at the aliens instead of running away.
There’s rarely a moment here that isn’t completely frustrating, mainly because of all the wasted potential on display. The film has a promising setup, but then it turns into a cliché alien apocalypse, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue is stale, the narrative lacks depth, and that the characters are incredibly underwritten. A major problem here is that you never come to care for any of the characters, as there’s essentially no development for anyone. We do get to learn a bit about why the attack happened and what was happening in the past on planet Earth, but none of that really makes any impact in the end.
The twist is a type of “clever” plot move that would perhaps satisfy in an episode of Black Mirror or in a Philip K. Dick short story, but when executed in a feature film like this, it simply muddles what already feels like a confused story. It starts as Close Encounters, becomes War of the Worlds, and then, well I won’t spoil it, but the gestures towards larger allegorical meanings feel especially tenuous here. The worst part of the film is the final few moments when things are concluded, for some reason we get a narration from Peter which seemed out of place. It is almost as if because the film had no real meaning, they just decided to insert one in the end there.
This film is an example of a good idea in a bad package. Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan aren’t at fault here, they actually do far better than most would with what turns out to be a mediocre script. It takes something of a risk, by casting Michael Peña in the leading role, a guy who has been around for a while and in a lot of things, mostly as the token Hispanic or the sidekick to the main hero. Nothing in his performance can be faulted; the problem is the way his character is written is just flat-out boring. However, Caplan is one of the highlights here, she may be the wife – read sidekick – but she comes into her own. Amelia Crouch and Erica Tremblay are alright. Israel Broussard is not bad too, but Mike Colter and Emma Booth are just sleepwalking through the film.
Everyone involved should probably be happy this film didn’t get released in theaters and will quietly live in a dark corner of Netflix. There, some viewers that may like this one, and if they make it through the mildly intriguing first hour, they will be rewarded with a nice plot twist and a few action scenes that might win them over. Beyond that, though, there is very little to like about this film. On the whole, ‘Extinction’ is a perfectly passable, generic, and uninspired film which despite an interesting concept falters due to standard execution.
Directed – Ben Young
Rated – TVMA
Run Time – 95 minutes