Friday, September 16, 2016

A Jumble Of Ideas And Mixed Executions: Why ARQ Underwhelms.

The Good: Moments of mood and idea, Setting and concept of the conflict
The Bad: Annoying shaky hand-held camerawork, Unconvincing characters, Inconsistent performances, Plot holes
The Basics: ARQ is not the next great science fiction epic . . . though it had moments where it hinted that it could be.

In recent weeks, I have been trying to get the most out of my Netflix subscription by watching more of the Netflix Originals films. For years, I have been a fan of Netflix for its original television programming, but in exploring the original films offered by Netflix, I have discovered that Netflix is hardly a consistent producer of quality works. Despite having some underwhelming experiences with Netflix movies, I got my hopes up when I discovered ARQ. As one who loves science fiction, ARQ was instantly appealing to me as it promised to deliver a strong science fiction premise. If anything, I was biased in favor of ARQ coming into the film and I eagerly stayed up to watch it when it made its Netflix premiere.

ARQ, sadly, is a tremendous letdown on almost every front.

ARQ stars Robbie Amell, who had a recurring role in the first season of The Flash (reviewed here!) and Rachael Taylor, who was also on Netflix's Jessica Jones. ARQ is the feature film debut of writer/director Tony Elliott and given the confined nature of the setting, the lack of well-known performers is not a detraction. While ARQ has a very limited set and very few characters, it has a much bigger scope and the film tries to create a much bigger world and sense of history outside the "haunted house" style setting for the film.

Renton wakes up beside Hannah, a woman with a glowing implant in her shoulder and he has a vision of his room being broken into and him dragged off. He wakes up again, disoriented, and a moment later, he is abducted just as he had foreseen. Renton is accused of frying someone related to the abductors and he and Hannah are tied to chairs in a room. The leader of the abductors, Father, demands whatever scripts Ren has gives him five minutes to come up with them (even though he leaves them tied to chairs). Ren is the builder of the ARQ, an energy turbine that he believes is the real target of the assailants. After escaping his chair, Ren leads Hannah to the room the hungry invaders have taken refuge in, but in the process of attacking them, Ren is stabbed.

Time resets to put Ren and Hannah back in bed and because Ren recalls the events of prior time through, he is able to prove to Hannah that he knows how to avoid getting stabbed again. Ren believes that the ARQ is causing time loops and he tasks Hannah with setting off a gas bomb to take out the invaders. When she fails to set off the gas bomb, Ren learns that Hannah is working with the assailants. When he is killed, he returns to the bed where he tries to prepare for the attack and confronts Hannah after they are abducted and left alone. That time through the loop, Hannah is put in a position where she kills Ren right in front of the ARQ and she remembers when the two wake up in the bedroom. Through each loop, Ren and Hannah try to test different ways to survive the loop and thwart the treacherous members of Hannah's infiltration team.

ARQ is set within Ren's house in a world where Australia has been destroyed, people are starving, there is an energy crisis and there is a war between the Taurus Company and freedom fighters called the Block. With every cycle through the time loop, Ren learns more information about Hannah, her "family" and the backstory of the events before the looped day. Hannah was tortured for months by Taurus and she is unaware of the true affiliations of some of her co-conspirators.

The science of ARQ is a bit wonky in that there is a conceit that allows Renton to learn that the time loop is a static duration and that element seems forced. Because ARQ is focused on Ren, it appears from the outset that the loop resets whenever Ren is killed and that (generally) works. The static loop idea becomes problematic in that the computer recording the loops (while the computer is within the radius of the ARQ's influence) seems very artificial. Furthermore, the moment the loop is exposed it begs the question; how did Renton turn on the ARQ in the first place? Renton was asleep when the loop began and it was on during the first loop - i.e. none of the Block members turned it on. The answer comes up when Hannah figures out that the body in the garage created a short, but that creates a pretty tremendous acting issue for ARQ and with one of the subsequent loops it becomes a massive plot problem.

For Hannah's theory to be correct - and how is it that she posits the formation of the time loop, not Ren?! - Hannah's group includes a scout. The first time Ren sees that body, he does not seem particularly surprised and during none of the loops does Hannah have an emotional reaction to seeing the body. That is an acting problem that creates fidelity of mood, but not fidelity to story or character.

The performances in ARQ are generally adequate. Robbie Amell plays the physical elements of the role of Renton entirely convincingly, but the longer ARQ went on, the more the viewer finds themselves looking for something in his performance that would make it even remotely credible that he invented the ARQ. While Amell and Taylor play confused and analytical with great accuracy and realism, neither of them seems remotely passionate enough to sell their characters. Amell fails to convincingly portray love for Hannah even though their backstory hinges on a prior romantic relationship. Rachael Taylor has some decent moments of exhibiting passion for the cause, but that is erratically presented. One almost has the impression that the leads were so baffled trying to figure out what the hell was going on in ARQ that they never questioned the larger arcs and motivations for their characters.

At the other end of the spectrum, the four men performing the team of attackers are fine, but their roles are pretty monolithic villains.

ARQ swings wildly from being intriguing to graphically violent and bloody to nonsensical and it is hard not to blame the medium. Tony Elliott created an entire world of backstory and character relationships for ARQ and the film unfolds through oblique allusions and references and while the confined setting of Ren's house could work, it just does not come together in the 88 minute film. ARQ might have been a compelling mini-series filled with flashbacks and on-screen examples of the key relationships, but for the film as it is, the overwhelming feeling is that Elliott dumped out a drawer full of ideas and the resulting film is more a mess than anything else.

For other Netflix exclusives, please check out my reviews of:
The Fundamentals Of Caring
House Of Cards - Season 2
Orange Is The New Black - Season 3
Daredevil - Season 2
Jessica Jones - Season 1
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 2
Grace And Frankie - Season 2
Sense8 - Season 1
Arrested Development - Season 4
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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