Back to the Netflix well this week – man, it does seem like I’m getting my movie watching fix from them at an ever increasing rate, huh? – for what was a relatively under-publicised sci-fi offering. Director Tony Elliot is best known for his work on TV series Orphan Black, but the streaming behemoth gave him the opportunity to bring this pet project to life. Favourable reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival gave me reason to optimistic. Could ARQ rise above its low budget essence, and prove itself an unlikely sci-fi classic?
In a dystopian future dominated by an oppressive corporate entity named Toros, Renton (Robbie Amell) a former Toros employee, reconnects with his once missing lover Hannah (Rachael Taylor). But when Renton’s home is invaded by soldiers of a resistance movement, both he and Hannah are caught in a bizarre time loop, connected to “the ARQ”, a strange technology stolen from Toros, that could hold the key to saving humanity.
The Groundhog Day time loop has become a very, very well-worn sci-fi sub-genre, whose potential intricacies have been long since explored, and explored well. ARQ’s whole hook is wrapped around the concept tightly, and in order for the film to succeed, it needs to find something new worth going after there.
And, to a certain extent, it does. ARQ takes the focus of having two people with wildly different motivations and personalities stuck in the same time-loop, with unpredictable people attacking them, people who might act true to their established nature from loop to loop, but who might, at any moment, reveal something new and very important about themselves. It’s a film loaded down with twists and treachery, but through the use of the time loop concept, manages to keep it all from becoming too by-the-books or overwrought.
Beyond that, it’s actually just a fun film is immerse yourself in. Despite what I can only presume is a tiny budget and the extremely limited shooting locations – essentially just the inside of a dilapidated home, and the majority of the film is in its basement – Elliott manages to craft a well-rounded and believable futurescape, where out of control corporations are the new law, the air outside the walls is poisonous and ragtag resistance movements rely on “scrip” – the corporations own system of money – to survive. Elliott didn’t need flashy CGI, extensive prologues or word crawls at the beginning to get his point across: the majority is simply told through news footage in the background, and the natural dialogue of the characters themselves, who never drop into exposition mode. The script generally is quite strong in that regard, save for when the technological aspects of things threatens to overwhelm the story in the last act.
The MacGuffin of the piece, even to a layman like me, is essentially magic with science terms attached to it, a perpetual motion device that, for some reason, starts resetting time in a three hour loop around it. While uncovering the mystery of the ARQ and why it is doing what it is doing is an important part of the plot, the film succeeds in making this a sort of tertiary priority of both characters and narrative. Instead, ARQ is more about the fractured relationship between Renton and Hannah, two people who have only just come back into each others lives. ARQ keeps you guessing whether the respectively damaged psyches of both – rather brilliantly teased out as we go along, between Renton’s hidden anger issues and Hannah’s deeper motivations for the reunion – can inter mesh again significantly.
In all of that Amell is doing rather well. Up to now he’s best known as a side character on The Flash, now getting into film at the same time as his slightly more illustrious cousin (this is better than TMNT: Out Of The Shadows though!). Amell illustrates a toughness underneath a more wizened and delicate exterior, and keeps the emotional stakes of the film going throughout, as he reacts to the succession of disasters and backstabbing confronting him in his mission to protect the ARQ. It’s unfortunate then that Taylor is such a drag, far from the good work she did on Jessica Jones, another Netflix property. Here, she lags behind Amell in terms of emotional reach and emotional delivery: when he gets caught up in the time loop, his reactions are perfect but for her, well, there are times when you can really tell that an actor is trying too hard, and Taylor struggles to just relax into the role that she has been given.
The other major part of proceedings is the clear and present danger presented by “the Bloc”, the goons of the local resistance movement, whose inner workings too present ample opportunity for backstabbing and betrayal. While most of the four characters are nobodies in terms of larger impact on the story, you still get a feel for their personalities, be they filled with desperate necessity, youthful naivety, psychopathic sadism or calculated violence. By the time we get to the last half hour, ARQ has concocted a scenario that is truly fascinating, namely, how do you react when you and your enemy are both looping, and both learning from everything that has come before?
Visually, ARQ is a great example of what can be accomplished on limited means. Renton’s home is a dishevelled, abused place, it’s damaged walls and dark corners the perfect analogy for the minds of the people inhabiting the space for the brisk 90+ minutes of screen-time. The windows are blacked out and the lighting is sparse, flashes of neon giving everything an occasionally ghoulish appearance. The only real future tech on display is holographic TV screens that some character pour scorn towards, until late-on of course. Things are kept suitably tight and confined when it comes to the camerawork: third act games of cat and mouse are expertly framed, keeping the tension ticking over.
Given it’s budget and other limitations, I’m happy to pronounce ARQ as a huge success, a film that manages to present a high-concept science fiction story within very defined parameters, intertwining it with a dystopic love story brilliantly. While one half of the leading pair isn’t pulling their weight enough, most of the cast does their job very well, most especially the magnetic Amell. Scripted well and making the very most of its limited means from a cinematography standpoint, ARQ is a film that is well worth your time. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).