Monday, May 20, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Arcadian’ is a Gripping Tale of Survival

Director: Benjamin Brewer
Writer: Michael Nilon
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Jaeden Martell, Maxwell Jenkins

Synopsis: A father and his twin teenage sons fight to survive in a remote farmhouse at the end of the end of the world.

“I don’t want to rebuild it. I want to build something new.”

Benjamin Brewer and Michael Nilon’s Arcadian is a thrilling dive into the creature feature genre. An apocalyptic event has occurred leaving most of humanity near extinction and living a liminal existence between the safety of daylight and the terrors of night.

Brewer immediately throws the audience into the action as Paul (Nicolas Cage) runs through a collapsed city to get to his twin sons. Fifteen years later, Paul is dealing with Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) and Joseph (Jaeden Martell) as teenagers. The brothers are at odds due to their distinct personalities. Thomas is wild and action oriented while Joseph is thoughtful, clinical, and scientific. Arcadian implies that Paul himself might have been partially responsible for the virus mutation which overtook humanity and created vicious insectoid monsters. 

Now living on a remote property in what could be Ireland or could be any forested area substituting for bucolic and beautiful but also threatening environment; Paul is at odds with the collective farm run by Mr. and Mrs. Rose (Joe Dixon and Samantha Coughlan). Despite the apocalypse they are creating their own version of Arcadia. They grow flowers, harvest the land, and shepherd livestock behind a fortified gate with a gunman controlling it. They live an almost ne plus ultra life of self-sufficiency. It is little wonder that Thomas is beguiled not only by this seemingly idyllic Rose farm, but also their daughter Charlotte (Sadie Soverall).

Joseph is more precise and practical about trying to keep his family unit alive. He is the inventor and quiet genius. Thomas and Joseph are Paul’s sons, battling at times like Cain and Abel. They are also Paul’s flock and like a good shepherd he will not let a lamb stray.

There are biblical and mythological references galore in the film but what really works is the unrelenting tautness of the film. Snatched moments of time between teenage lovers can have dire consequences for the survival of both of them. In fact, it can have dire consequences for all the people still alive. Especially for Paul and Joseph.

Having similarities to other post-apocalyptic narratives, in particular 28 Days Later by Danny Boyle, and A Quiet Place, makes the plot of Arcadian appear somewhat overly familiar. However, Brewer ensures the audience is absolutely invested in the fate of Paul, Thomas, Joseph, and Charlotte. The bonds that cannot be broken between father and sons, brothers and lovers, parents and their children are tested during a time of monstrous extremity.

Brewer uses his skill as a VFX specialist to create hideous creatures who exist to sting and destroy. Part survival thriller and part eco-horror, Arcadian blends its genres seamlessly to create an edge of the seat experience. Frank Mobilio’s camera work is at times almost cinéma verité and at others discomfitingly abstract; along with Kristi Shimek’s editing it provides Arcadian with a rich and haunting texture. Where we cannot see because of the engulfing darkness the incredible sound design ensures we understand the impending threat. 

The script by Michael Nilion, a regular collaborator with Cage, is layered and intelligent. It avoids exposition dumps to create the air of uncertainty around the events. It isn’t so much a case of what you see is what you get, but a case of what you see and what you don’t see is all you need. 

The film’s tempo of pressure and brief respite follows the logic of the day and night world the characters inhabit. Everything becomes a race to get home, wherever that may be, and to be safe before the sun goes down and the creatures appear. Once we finally do see the creatures beyond mere glimpses and shadows, they are as abject and horrific as you can imagine unnaturally evolved insectoids being. They also work as hive creatures which means they are intelligent and organized in a way that the remaining humans have forgotten. Paul and Joseph act as a reminder that you can never let your guard down against pathogenic nature when it sets out to destroy.

Arcadian has recognizable influences, but the way Brewer has decided to concentrate on what humanity means at the end of the world through the lens clambering dread makes the film a heart pounding experience. Humanity is vestigial not only because there are few survivors, but because extending support to others is something that people who live in the Rose compound refuse to do. With little left to stay alive — limited medicine, food being scarce, the Eden or Arcadia of the Rose farm speaks to the foolishness of a collective which protects only those they arbitrarily deem worthy. Even at the end of the world, a class system remains in place.

Jaeden Martell is extraordinary and considering his supernal career thus far it is a testament to the direction and the script which channel his immense talent. Maxwell Jenkins is the perfect foil to Martell. The other face of a coin that needs to remain whole to ensure the survival of those he loves. Thomas’ blossoming romance with Charlotte is lovely, melancholy, and eventually extremely kick ass. 

It is a maxim now that if you give Nic Cage the right material he can go into God Mode in seconds. Arcadian plays directly into his strengths as an actor. He doesn’t have to say much but every word he says is essential. When it comes to action, Cage does not skip a beat. 
At its heart, Arcadian is a story about family. The legacy they leave and the inspiration they pass on. Coming of age is tough enough under normal circumstances but doing so when you are facing extinction as a species is next level. Arcadian is moody, ominous, and ferocious but it is also about reconciliation and hope. To survive, and be worthy of survival, recollecting the good in humanity is key. Tense, visceral, and explosive – Arcadian is the real deal for creature features.

Grade: B

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