The film opens with an expository voice-over, which sets out a complete story up to this point. Aliens arrived, destroyed the moon, invaded. The world was destroyed by techtonic forces, but we rallied, nuked the heck out of them, and won the war. Now, unfortunately, Earth is broken and so only two people remain, overseeing the mining operation necessary to launch humanity on its journey to a new home on Titan.
This voice-over is incredibly damaging to the film, falling only just short of the incredibly misjudged introduction to Dark City. It makes the classic blunder of trying to tell rather than show, and I am fairly sure that it is a later addition foisted on the director by the studio because the speech is repeated virtually verbatim by a character inside the fiction later on. The speech has the effect of rendering predictable much of the action in the first half, action which would otherwise be vaguely interesting, but is now just going through the motions outlined in the voice-over. It makes a sufficiently bad impression, I felt, that it’s hard to get past it to the rest of the film. Depending on your level of cynicism and readiness to meta-game the plot, the voice-over probably also gives you all of the main plot twists right there at the start. It is a disaster.
The first act reminded me of the first act of I Am Legend, but somehow without any of the interest or charisma of devastated New York. Desert with barely-recognisable mostly-destroyed landmarks is less evocative than all-too-specific New York with specifically topical movie and show posters still in place, with signs of humanity everywhere. Robert Neville is trying very hard to carry on living a life after everyone is dead, and it is well drawn. Jack, technician 49, starts out only slightly less robotic than the machines he repairs. The photographs in Neville’s house, in his car, have more presence in his life than Jack’s companion Victoria seems to have in the flesh. I think this was deliberate, creating a distance necessary for the plot to unfold as it does, but it does make the first 40 minutes difficult to engage with emotionally.
Inevitably, something arises to disturb the routine, and the film starts to build some interest and some narrative momentum, but for me that was too late to secure my goodwill and I was predisposed not to ignore the problems in story arrangement and science that began to emerge. The details of what is going on make little to no sense, which is always a big problem in a Science fiction. The film inelegantly thrashes its way through predictable story beats to reach the necessary ending of any big-budget Hollywood action SF. All of the cast work hard to sustain the limp story, and giving credit where its due, they mostly keep you distracted while it’s playing, but if we’re thinking in terms of “refrigerator” movies, this is a “cinema door” movie.
As usual then, we play my game of how to fix this tired melange of semi-interesting concepts. Unfortunately the real problem with this film is that it half-heartedly tries out a bunch of different things, failing at all of them. If we fixed just one of those things, for example by taking the relationship between Jack and Victoria seriously, you would then have one strong element that was still mired in a film whose basic plot makes no sense. If we fix the plot by, for example, replacing the main AI with a human clone, then we still have a situation about which we do not care. So I must, slightly reluctantly, conclude that fixing it is too hard – there are too many problems brought about by its grab-bag approach to SF, sloppy scientific rationalization, 1D characters, and so on.