As steaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.
Director: Ben Young
Writers: Spenser Cohen, Eric Heisserer, Brad Kane
Extinction is a essentially “War of the Worlds,” by way of watered down Philip K. Dick. The film is built around a third act twist, which is genuinely surprising,, but rendered ineffective by the listless story and incoherent themes. The film was originally planned for a theatrical release by Universal, but followed the Cloverfield Paradox journey of delays, rescheduling, getting dropped from theatrical schedule and ultimately sold to Netflix to recoup costs on what would be a certain flop.
Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan star as Peter an Alice, and upper-middle class couple that find themselves caught in the middle an alien invasion and have to protect their two daughters, Hanna and Lucy (Amelia Crouch and Erica Tremblay). The characters are little more than ciphers. Peter spends too much time at work, teenage Hanna is rebellious and likes pretending to be an elevator operator, Alice is concerned and has a better work-life balance than Peter, and Lucy has a singing monkey toy.
At the start of the film, Peter is troubled by recurring nightmares of fighting in some sort of urban guerrilla war. After a minor accident caused by Peter being distracted, his boss insists Peter go to a “wellness center” to get an examination, but Peter is reluctant until Alice expresses worry about his psychological state and the toll it’s taking on the family. In the waiting room, Peter meets another patient who claims that the wellness center is part of a conspiracy to erase people’s thoughts to control them (why this guy decides to go along with it isn’t entirely clear). The premise of a mind-eraser conspiracy related to a war is interesting, but ends up being underserved by the big twist.
Once the alien invasion starts, the film scales down. A handful of effects shots show a city under siege–but the majority of the film is taken up by Peter and Alice evading a handful of aliens that have stormed into their apartment building. Even thought it is an aerial invasion, the family heads to the roof to take refuge from the aliens in the apartments. The power to the apartments are cut, so it is mostly running through dark stairways and living rooms, pursued by anywhere from 1 to 3 aliens at a time. There is a predictable, yet still inexplicable scene where Lucy runs directly into danger to save the singing monkey toy that is her personality. They escape from the apartment building, and head immediately into dimly lit underground tunnels, with a lone alien in pursuit.
So, the twist (major spoilers from here on out): Peter smashes the helmet on one of the invaders, who takes off their mask revealing that the “aliens” are actually human people. Alice is injured, and it turns out that she–and everybody else on earth–are actually robots (“synthetic humans” is the term the film uses). The invader comes up with a plan to save her, that involves connecting her power source to Peter. This causes Peter to pass out, where he realizes that his nightmares are actually flashbacks: Robots had essentially replaced human workers, which provoked a backlash, which only intensified when robot AI began developing emotions and the ability to fight humans in self-defense. Humans decide to decommission the robots, which boils down to soldiers storming where robots work and shooting them indiscriminately. The robots manage to fight back, and drive all of humanity from earth. Humans retreat to colonies on Mars, while the robots decide to erase their memories of the war, of being robots, so they can lead “normal” lives as families.
This flashback sequence is where the film tips over into full goofiness. Peter developing emotions is dramatized as him helping Alice pick up some items she dropped from a cart, which confuses her because being polite is confounding to robots, apparently. Peter escapes machine gun fire by running in a straight line down a narrow hallway, each bullet somehow missing him. An anti-robot pundit delivers the line “We are not gods, but we are their gods, because we built them, which makes us their god.” There is also a bit with anti-robot protesters chanting “You will not replace us” which aims for timeliness, but ends up feeling exploitative.
The biggest problem is that the film asks you to sympathize with robots that have successfully wiped humanity off of earth. The flashback sequence is clearly meant to generate sympathy for the robots, and tries to undercut how violent the robot counterattack had to be, to literally conquer the planet. There are brief scenes of victorious, gun-wielding robots walking through streets littered with bloodless corpses. Peter and Alice’s daughters were robots that belonged to a human couple killed by genocidal robots. An anti-robot pundit argues that robots should be shut down because they will inevitably rise up and conquer earth, and him being proven right doesn’t really match him being posited as a bad guy. The idea appears to be that since humans started the war it’s not the robots fault, but conquering the entire Earth still feels excessive. The film is trying to posit the robots as metaphors for oppressed persons, but without much of a sense of what their oppression was, and with the film taking place decades after they massacred their oppressors and have been living free with no memory of what happened, it ends up being really vague what, if anything, it is trying to say.
The concept of the robots erasing their memories and believing that they are human isn’t really explained. The robots conquered earth 50 years ago–have they noticed that they aren’t getting old? That their children are still children? Do they get their memories erased at regular intervals to maintain the timeline? Nor is it explained why they would want to live exactly like humans. Robot society doesn’t appear all that better than middle-class human life–Peter is torn between work and family, in a typical “overworked dad” way, but there isn’t really much of a reason for robots to work unless they want to. Alice is an architect, but why would robots–who presumably have a static population, since they are not manufacturing themselves-need new buildings? The flashback sequence doesn’t provide any explanation why they would deliberately mimic humans, even human unhappiness. It comes across as a contrivance, to avoid giving away the twist, than any sort of statement on humanity. It’s a twist that would probably work better in a short story, where you can get away with hiding that the protagonist isn’t human, instead of coming with a contrivance to explain why they look and act exactly like humans.
After the big reveal, the film runs out of plot, and a climax sort of just happens out of a minor problem. Ultimately, the film strains to say something about empathy and humanity, but is hampered by a plot that doesn’t contextualize itself until the third act. The twist indicates there film has some ambition, to say something ‘important’ instead of just being a cheap alien invasion thriller, but the “common humanity” theme doesn’t jibe with the cycle of genocidal violence that is the actual plot. It isn’t a plea for mutual understanding, but an argument to let robotic conquerors have earth.
Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Washed Up Flop.