In The Shadow Of The Moon
After a triumphant return the realm of good in-theatre film-making last week, I thought maybe I might be due a return to the realm of good streaming film-making. This film was something that Netflix had been strongly encouraging me to check out in the lead up to and after its release. Maybe that was because I have racked up a few Boyd Holbrook productions, or maybe because my tastes for Netflix originals err towards the lowish-budget sci-fi side (they pretty much seem like the only studio financing them nowadays). Either way, in lieu of anything else to see this week, I turned to the internet. Funky title, weird premise, mostly decent cast, not a hugely well known director: was this a potent mix for great science fiction, or was it something I ended up wishing I had time travel powers I could use to prevent it from happening?
Philadelphia 1988: as he await’s the imminent birth of his first child, cop Tommy Lockhart (Holbrook) has an encounter with a young serial killer (Cleopatra Coleman) who demonstrates impossible knowledge of the future before her violent death. Every nine years afterwards he encounters her again, as his obsession with figuring out the truth of what is happening increasingly derails his own life.
Listen, I likes me some high concept science fiction that blends with other genres. Take a look at my thoughts on this year’s See You Yesterday, or even the less good Kin. Science fiction isn’t enough some times, and its a genre that really only pops when it wraps itself around something else, whether it be another type of story-telling, or a specific movement, be it artistic, societal or political. In The Shadow Of The Moon tries to do this, with a time travel story that has epic pretensions, attempting to tie itself in to the rising tide of xenophobic and fear-based politics in the United States. It’s not a bad idea. It’s a shame then that the different strands of Jim Mickle’s production aren’t able to excel in their own right, and do not support the whole.
Mickle sets his story in four distinctive epochs, and to his credit manages to make all of them seem a bit different, at least in part. 1988 see’s a grimdark cop drama in the style of Seven or Along Came A Spider, all bloody bodies and chases down alleyways. 1996 is a bit more family-based while retaining strong elements of the gumshoe sub-genre. 2006 sees a descent into more trippy conspiracy-theory stuff, that had me thinking of Zodiac and Looper in parts, and also The Terminator. And 2015 aims for M. Night Shyamalan twist territory, with a smattering of more outright sci-fi. The influences are thus varied and the resulting film can claim to have a bit of a hook. It has ambition, and that should be respected.
Any one of these idea could have been parsed out into something with a bit more substance, and it is fair to say that In The Shadow Of The Moon might have worked just as well or better as a mini-series (one wonders, in the current age of entertainment, if that was the original intention; certainly there is a feel of True Detective-esque episodicness to what takes place). But none of the four acts is able to stand out enough to be really eye-catching. The film is able to just about trip along, but never captures the necessary vim or verve to really make the most out of what I will fully admit is an otherwise interesting premise. All of the constituent parts have an unmistakable lethargy in production, suffering as they all do from a weak script and a cast that either isn’t really into or not able to be.
The script, from Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock is a serious issue, reading like it went through multiple revisions, getting steadily less daring and intelligent as it went. So we get lots of awkward set-up lines as we move from scene-to-scene, smalshy dream sequences straight out of the Stephen King cutting room floor and the basics of a police procedural mixed with a little bit of The X-Files. At one point, Michael C. Hall’s detective decides to call in reinforcements by saying “If you’ve got a badge on your chest and a gun on your hip, I need you to move right now!”, like he is John McClane; at others, characters weigh the film down with resort to pseudoscientific technobabble hackery.
The end result is a film that seems to be both talking down to its audience with the amount of lantern-hanging, and not talking enough when it comes to some of the more intricate parts of its premise and its final resolution. An effort to really grandstand with a late-in-the-game “twist” falls dramatically short of what is required, again thanks to some bad script-work. Such shocking moments do little to save productions otherwise in trouble, merely calling attention to its flaws.
Any sci-fi film worth its salt will try and ask an interesting question. Here at least, In The Shadow Of The Moon can garner some partial credit. The premise of the film leads to the idea of how morally justifiable it is to use time travel to achieve non-violent ends in the future: in this case, it is suggested that the murder of innocents can help prevent larger destruction they may, advertently or inadvertently, cause in years to come. In other words, don’t kill Hitler, kill the people who gave him his ideas, or formed him when he was young.
The problem is that, while the possibilities engendered by this idea are interesting, the film introduces the full ramifications and discussions of them far too late, as we approach the finish line. They are more of a twist than a theme really, and for a film that approaches the two hour mark, that’s not really acceptable. For the record, In The Shadow Of The Moon appears to endorse the idea above, giving one seemingly protagonistic character the rather dangerous line of “Some thoughts are meant to be buried”, a sentiment I found rather unappealing. The Terminator didn’t have it right.
Holbrook and Coleman are the main through-lines of the film. For Holbrook, someone I really loved in Narcos, this should be a dream role really, the chance to play a man whose single-minded obsession with the supernatural turns him into an isolated wreck. The film, aiming as it does to be so many things at once, needs a strong, charismatic performances from its lead. But whether it is the direction or the words, Holbrook can’t pull it off. His Tommy comes across less as a man driven to the edge and more as a lackadaisical should-know-better. Holbrook has priors when it comes to playing law enforcement, so I’m surprised that his performance here, especially as the film rounds the first hour and heads into real tinfoil-hat territory, is so leaden.
Coleman isn’t called upon to actually act that much – most of the time she is on screen she is running away from Holbrook – but in those brief critical moments when she needs to offer dangling hooks of exposition and make us care about the mystery of what is happening, she too falters. She is let down by words that sound overly-manufactured, and a third act narration that spells out too much of what is occurring, very much feeling like a test audience alteration. A better film might be one that attempts to tell the story from both ends, cutting down on the maudlin family drama for Tommy in favour of a better glimpse at “Rya”.
The only other notable in the case is Michael C. Hall, whom I haven’t seen much of since Dexter’s ill-fated finale in 2013 (he’s been mostly on the stage since, his biggest screen role being a recurring VA part on Star Vs The Forces Of Evil). He gives it all that he can, but what he has been given to play with – a sort of straight-laced brother-in-law foil to Holbrook’s Tommy character, with an awful hard-to-place accent (sort of part Philly, part British, part southern) – is just a male version of “the Skyler” there to provide an impediment to the main character. A diner scene where he confronts an increasingly ragged and unhinged Tommy about the nature of his private investigations should be a real Heat-esque scene-stealer, but in the end all he gets to do is call Tommy insane over and over. It’s a bad waste of a man who, judging by the earlier seasons of Dexter, was once one of the brightest talents of the day.
While Mickle does his best to make every segment feel like its own unique thing, In The Shadow Of The Moon still struggles to break out from a cinematography perspective. I mentioned a lot of possible influences above, but one over-riding inspiration was probably Blade Runner (when is it not for urban-based sci-fi?), as Philadelphia is made to look like a crowded, dirty Gotham City, all back alleys and chain-link fences to be jumped over, before we depart to more rural climes, but climes still awash in grey and grime. The look is different every nine years, but not different enough really. There’s too many overly-long establishing or travelling shots, that make the film seem padded out. Perhaps there was a budget issue, but for me setting a film across four different time periods is too much of an opportunity for directorial variety to be presented like this.
It can only be described as only all-right. As I said, maybe there was a budget issue that effected things to an extent, but there are non-budgetary problems that were not adequately tackled, chief among them a lacklustre script, that undercuts everything else. The cast aren’t as engaged with the material as you would like, and there hasn’t been an appropriate exploration of how things could have been handled visually. From a thematic perspective, it has some interesting questions to ponder, but the implications are introduced too late, just ahead of an inane twist that does not help matters. In The Shadow Of The Moon, regrettably, can only go down as a missed opportunity. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).