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Review: Arcadian – “Cage brings his charisma as always”

Props to Oscar-winning icon Nicolas Cage, who (believe it or not) turned 60 this year, for relentlessly using his star power as a gateway to allow up-and-coming filmmakers the opportunity of getting their projects green-lit. This time around Cage not only stars in and executive produces the film, but the project also marks his reunion with director Benjamin Brewer, whom he had already supported by starring alongside Elijah Wood in the filmmaker’s previous feature, gritty crime drama The Trust (2016).

This new collaboration is a post-apocalyptic monster flick, ironically titled Arcadian as the little family unit at the centre of the story is trying to live a quiet life of survival in the countryside. Still, there’s nothing pastoral or bucolic about their existence. Paul (Cage) and his teenage sons, Thomas (Lost in Space’s Maxwell Jenkins) and Joseph (IT’s Jaden Martell), spend their days scavenging for resources and reinforcing the dilapidated farm they’ve made into their home. At sundown, they have no choice but to barricade themselves inside the house and keep the creatures of the night at bay.

Although on a budget, this is another one of those tropes-relying high-concept scripts where the fiends at play have a basic Achille’s heel: they suffer exposure to light. If this sounds all too familiar, you’re right: it very much is. Nothing is wrong with that since great storytelling infamously borrows and reworks from other great stories, adapting elements to cater to its own devices. In an ideal cinematic landscape, Arcadian could’ve been a compelling mash-up of A Quiet Place’s structure and monster tropes with Signs’ family drama and Hitchcockian vibes. Unfortunately, it disappoints on both fronts due to plot inconsistencies and lacklustre character development.

The first major issue with the story is the lack of specificity about the post-apocalyptic setting and the sci-fi premise. If omission often works well with an indie project and its limited production values by heightening the mystery and suspense, in this case the excessive vagueness has a domino effect on the story’s ability to keep us engaged throughout. The film kicks off with a brief prologue where Cage’s Paul is running for dear life through the rubble of an unidentified city in decay under what feels like a policed state. He’s been gathering essentials to bring back to his shelter where he’s hiding two infants.

We flash forward to fifteen years later, as Paul is apprehensively waiting for one of his now teenage sons, Thomas, to return home after helping at a nearby farm. The boy makes it back in the nick of time as the sun is setting, whilst his brother Joseph has already started the barricading procedures to secure their home for the night ahead. At the candle lit dinner table, to break up a moment of bickering tension between the two brothers, Paul mentions in strategic expository form: ‘There are those who believe they came after the pollution people caused and they’re here to cleanse the planet of the human race, so we’ll all become extinct.’

Then it’s time for “they” to make their first appearance, banging at the doors and making the walls shake, and like in every respected horror-thriller it’s merely a first taste, not even a glimpse, of what these monsters look like or are capable of. The reveal comes gradually and Brewer, who was also the lead visual effect designer on Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once, clearly knows how to build suspense and foreboding anticipation. However, along the way, the rules of the game are bent around the minimalistic set-up because one minute the monsters’ attempts to break in seem to be easily contained, whilst on other occasions they are unstoppable and voracious.

The following day Paul sends the boys out on a resource-gathering mission together, making it clear that Thomas needs to stick to the plan and not detour to the neighbouring farm. But being a teenager means rebelling, so Thomas inevitably disobeys and jumps off Joseph’s makeshift car to run off to the farm, promising to meet up before sundown. Soft-spoken and brainy Joseph continues the mission alone whilst his athletic and reckless brother follows his hormones all the way to the neighbours’ farm because giving a helping hand is just an excuse to hang out with Charlotte (Saltbrun’s Sadie Soverall), the only teenage girl around.

Whilst Joseph has his own challenges during his scavenging hunt and the car won’t start as the sun is dangerously close to set, it’s Thomas who doesn’t make it home in time for sundown since he falls in a crevice whilst running back through the woods. Paul then has no choice but to venture out into the night to rescue the boy and that’s where things get murky with the rules about how the monsters behave. Meanwhile, Joseph is left alone to defend their home from the intruders and that’s probably one of the most genuinely creepy and goosebumps-inducing sequences of the entire film.

Benjamin Brewer undoubtedly has good instincts when it comes to directing and creating suspense, supported by solid cinematography work, decent creature design and CGI effects, albeit on a budget. Cage brings his charisma as always, even if his role is more of a supporting one and his performance rightfully subdued. This is supposed to be a tale of two brothers and their relationship and despite the best effort from young rising stars Jenkins and Martell, the screenplay by Mike Nilon lets them down. Things remain disappointingly on the surface even when the film explores what’s going on in the neighbours’ farm, which barely hints at a potentially intriguing commentary on the class divide during the apocalypse.

Aside from the plot holes with the rule-bending when it comes to the creatures’ modus operandi, the characters are not given room to breathe and delve deep into what could’ve been a compelling dynamic. And once again it all boils down to the vagueness of the world the film is set in. The scene when Joseph and Charlotte are flirting at the farm says it all. They play a game titled “explain the apocalypse in ten seconds”. It could’ve been a clever way to convey exposition through dialogue, but their contrasting versions of the story only add to the viewer’s frustration rather than coming across as a cool storytelling device.

At least with a lean 90-minute running time, Arcadian breezes by and offers a few thrilling moments that make it entertaining enough but if you’re looking for your next cult Cage B-movie you’re going to have to wait for his next one with your fingers crossed.

Arcadian is in UK cinemas now via Vertigo Releasing.

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