ARQ (2016)

I love bottle movies. There’s something that appeals to the wannabe filmmaker in me that is totally enraptured by films that take place almost entirely in one location, from independent horror cheapies that far exceed expectations like Housebound, higher profile haunted house flicks like Burnt Offerings, and high concept claustrophobic pieces that are successful beyond expectations, like Paranormal Activity and Alien. Of course, with that, you also end up with a lot of direct-to-video–and occasionally wide released–garbage fare starring the director’s family, friends, and fellow church-goers (i.e., not actors), and sometimes you end up with something that straddles the line, like Beyond the Gates, which is a movie that’s obviously low-budgeted but uses that to its advantage to make a pretty charming movie.

You’ll notice that all of the movies mentioned in the above paragraph are horror movies, and there’re a few reasons for this. First and foremost, horror movies are generally the cheapest to make and easiest to market, making their production a great entry point for first-time filmmakers (as mentioned in the DVD interviews that accompanied Sole Survivor, one of my first reviews for this site). There are plenty of housebound (no pun intended) family or personal drama films produced this way, but the occasional Repulsion that slips through the cracks is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, you end up with something tedious and poorly edited that ends up on Red Letter Media’s The Wheel of the Worst, waiting to be mocked.

Netflix in particular has really embraced this with their original films, with movies like Hush and I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. This is probably more for budgetary reasons than for any ideological reason, but it’s working for them and I don’t foresee them putting a stop to this soon. This is also the case for ARQ, a sci-fi time loop thriller starring Robbie Amell (The Flash, the remade The Tomorrow People) and Rachael Taylor (Jessica Jones).

The film opens as Renton (Amell) catapults awake in a room with blacked-out windows, next to Hannah (Taylor). Moments later, the door bursts open and three masked and armed men enter to drag the two of them to Renton’s basement, where they are bound. The three men identify themselves as Sonny (Shaun Benson), Father (Gray Powell), and Brother (Jacob Neayem), and demand that Renton hand over his currency. Through expository dialogue, we learn that Renton used to be a military engineer for Torus Corporation, where he worked on development of a perpetual motion machine that was intended for use as a generator. Torus has become a de facto government opposed by a disorganized rebellion known as the Bloc, which the home invaders claim to be aligned with. When Renton is killed, he awakes back in bed with Hannah, again and again, using his knowledge from each previous cycle in an attempt to break free.

It’s an interesting premise, if not an original one. Starting with Groundhog Day, and although it was codified in a comedy film, it’s become a fairly standard science fiction narrative, popping up in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Farscape, Doctor Who (naturally), and even Supernatural. Its use is so common that a week before I watched this movie it was the centerpiece of the most recent episode of Dark Matter, which, as always, subverted and played with the idea in a refreshing and fun way. ARQ is likewise a fresh take, but it’s mired down by too much front-loaded world-building exposition, with terminology being introduced early and not explained for 30 minutes, which is a major problem in a film that barely crosses the finish line at 88 minutes total. There’s certainly something interesting about the universe that this film inhabits, but its presentation is hamstrung by poor choices about what plot elements should take precedence. Consider that the shows mentioned above played with this plot structure and managed to be intriguing and elicit investment despite the potential for repetitiveness in a mere 42-46 minutes; ARQ feels like it’s treading water long before it hits that minute mark.

Amell may not be the strongest actor in the world, but the performance he turns in here is bland and generic; any handsome face could fill this role. This may not be a mark against him, however, as Taylor was one of the subtler (but no less meaningful) strengths of Jessica Jones and she’s barely more than a cardboard stand-up here. One must conclude that the problems are probably in the directing and editing and not in the performers, although a more subtle actor in the role of Renton may have salvaged some of the films more bathetic moments. As it stands, the film is discomfiting in that it feels rushed and cluttered with exposition, and not in a good way. It’s worth a watch for people interested in bottle movies, or in Groundhog Day loop scenarios, but offers little else.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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