Thursday, 8 December 2016

Movie Review: ARQ (2016)



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In the annals of speculative fiction, the very idea of time travel is one that seems to fascinate people the most. Like, to the point where even filmmakers and audiences that want nothing to do with the deeper implications of sci-fi are willing to go along with it; on paper, Groundhog Day shouldn’t have gotten as widely popular as it did. However, in spite of that, it is also one of the most problematic and fiddly sub-genres in the entirety of fiction, let alone speculative fiction. The reason for this is one of basic logic, and how most storytellers fail to take into account the extremely complex logic behind time travel, paradoxes, timelines, parallel timelines among many, many others. As such, even with the better time twisting tales that have come out recently like Looper, Edge Of Tomorrow and even (by some accounts) Predestination, plot holes make themselves quite prominent and end up tearing away at the work’s structural integrity. Will this film fall into that same trap? Only one way to find out. This is ARQ.


The plot: Renton (Robbie Amell) wakes up in bed next to his ex-girlfriend Hannah (Rachel Taylor). Within moments, Renton’s house is invaded by men in air masks, demanding he hand over all the medication that he has in the house. When trying to fight them off, he knocks himself out… and wakes up again in bed next to Hannah. He is stuck in a time loop and has to find a way to break it without dying in the process. However, things have only started to become complicated and that task will only grow more difficult the longer the time is maintained.

The cast here is really solid and, for a cast this small, consistency is incredibly important. Amell as our main character shows real intellect in his actions and motives, but carries a certain complexity to him that makes the events that occur to him and around him carry a real emotional weight that only genuinely talented actors can pull off. Between this and The DUFF, I really hope that this is the start of something good and length in terms of careers. Opposite him, Taylor weaves through the character marks that she’s given with remarkable ease, all while never making it feel like she’s betraying her own character at any point. Shaun Benson, Gray Powell, Jacob Neayem and Adam Butcher as the home invaders work well within that framework, and while they continue to evolve as the film continues, they pale in comparison to how well Amell and Taylor do as our leads.

As a home invasion thriller, it works when it comes to setting up the right moving parts to carry along the story. Within more-than-reasonable time, we get the basic questions of the plot set up to establish why the invasion is taking place at all. We get the whos fairly quickly, the hows are just as simple, the whys unfold quite naturally as the plot continues and even the what (as in what they want) is well-developed and, even though it is in a form of fluidity, it continues to make sense in spite of what the film throws into the works. Now, on its own, this is acceptable but it’s how it manages to handle needing to repeat scenes as the time loop continues. This aspect can be quite subjective in terms of being successful, as some audiences are more willing to sit through the same plot instances on a repeated basis than others. However, even as someone who falls into the less-than-willing side of that equation, the way this film handles that element in terms of plot is quite admirable, mainly because writer/director Tony Elliott knew well enough to keep the plot developing and evolving within the loop to keep things interesting.

As a time travel yarn, it goes for the same time loop plot as films like Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, and while it may be a bit of a letdown for how recognizable as it is, this film throws in enough twists and turns to make it into a fresh take on the trope. It probably helps that, because of the nature of the time loop itself, this involves far less repeating of the same plot beats in each cycle, meaning that this film sets a standard and keeps re-writing it as the film goes on. Of course, this comes with its own variety of plot holes presented by the use of time travel and the in-universe explanation for its origin and its field of effect, but honestly, it’s easy enough to ignore for how well the other parts of the production play out.

Much like Edge Of Tomorrow, this film uses its time travel elements as a commentary on the state of war and how much of an endless cycle that it is… except this might actually do a better job with that than even Edge Of Tomorrow managed. The reasons for this are many, but the key difference is how this film builds up the world around the characters, introducing aspects like the current war for energy supplies, the rarity of fresh produce, right down to how those fighting in the war aren’t as clear-cut in their allegiances as it may appear. Then we get the ending, which I won’t dare spoil here but let’s just say that it’s pretty damn close to perfect considering how this film plays with depicting the nature of war.

All in all, even considering this film is dependent on a plot device that has been used quite a bit in recent memory, this is a quite effective portrayal of that plot. The acting is good, the world-building and general handling of its sci-fi elements is very well done and the pacing, even considering the resets, is brisk and manages to push this film through all its developments without it really sinking in that a fair bit of it is based on repeating action. In short, it does what any good story about time travel should aim for: Make us care and be invested in the action on screen enough so that the inevitable questioning of the build quality of the plot doesn’t matter as much as it could. It’s better than Risen which, for as much credit as I gave it concerning its depiction of faith and those who look for it, loses in the comparison because its production values were just that poor. Here, it reaches low-fi without looking necessarily cheap, which gives it the edge. However, in comparison to another sci-fi story, This Giant Papier Mache Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy (and over time, I have come to absolutely adore that title) felt like a more complete and overall fresher instance of the genre.

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