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Simon Read [Celluloid 01.21.16] scifi thriller

In many ways Terminus is just the kind of low-key, apocalyptic, sci-fi thriller which we appreciate so much around here. With a stripped-down, minimal aesthetic, focus on developing characters and relationships, and an ever present sense of tension, doom and dread, there's a lot for PA enthusiasts to enjoy here. The film is not without problems (which we'll get into shortly), but it essentially stands as an enjoyably creative and well executed thriller, with plenty of original ideas and several eye-catching performances.

The story, set some time in a near future America, concerns a small-town car mechanic named David (Jai Koutrae) and his daughter Annabelle (Kendra Appleton) - both struggling to survive in a county ravaged by economic collapse, political unrest, and the prolonged conflict in the Middle East, which has rendered America as unpopular as... well, ever. David works hard to support himself and Annabelle, but his life has begun to unravel in the wake of his wife's death some years before. He drinks in a dive bar where he meets a veteran of the war in Iran, an amputee named Zach (Todd Lasance). They get into a fight with some local rednecks, and a friendship of sorts is forged.

Driving home, David watches as a meteorite suddenly falls from the sky, causing him to lose control of his truck and roll into a ditch. David approaches the crash site and investigates the object, an organic looking pod which glows blue and appears to contain tentacle-like protrusions which slither around the ground. After he passes out, either due to his considerable injuries, or the meteor's strange, alien emissions, David is rescued by Annabelle and wakes the following morning in hospital without a single scratch on him. Even weirder though, that kidney he donated to his wife years ago seems to have reappeared inside him... and that's completely impossible. David returns to the crash site and grabs the pod, and this is where things start to get a bit complicated.

From here the plot thickens as a group of shady FBI types get involved. Led by the enigmatic Agent Stipe (Bren Foster) they're very interested in David's miraculous recovery, and are intent on utilising the meteor and its powers to strengthen the US military's position abroad. A series of bizarre dreams and hallucinations convince David to build some kind of giant space capsule in an abandoned barn, while Zach learns of the object's powers and begins to form plans of his own. The film moves between each little group as they fall progressively deeper down the rabbit hole, heading towards some kind of inevitable catastrophe.

The strongest elements of Terminus lie both in character interaction, and the underlying sense of hopelessness which permeates basically every scene. As David and Zach hold a muted conversation in a bar, the television news paints a picture of a world heading straight down the toilet. So, as an exercise in world-building, this film is certainly grim, but in maintaining focus on the characters' histories and their hopes, while also suggesting that the doomsday clock is ticking ever closer to nuclear armageddon, director/co-writer Marc Furmie ratchets up the tension, keeping us involved in each storyline as the film progresses.

This is, unfortunately, where certain problems emerge. David and Annabelle are sympathetic characters, but not particularly interesting ones. Their story frequently looks and feels like an after-school TV drama which happens to have a sci-fi twist. They bicker and brood, and occasionally come together in forgiveness, and while the actors' performances are certainly admirable, we never wholly invest in their relationship, which feels as though it lacks a requisite resonance. Similarly, Agent Stipe and his colleagues have little to do apart from drive around, look at computer screens and occasionally murmur vague concerns about the escalating war and their desire to find the alien pod. By contrast, consider any scene between Zach and fellow amputee veteran, Jim (Vincent Andriano). The difference is profound. Lasance and Andriano inhabit their roles quite remarkably, providing real energy and chemistry whenever they share the screen. One scene involves the pair attending a local protest against sending more troops to Iran, facing off against a furious townie who still believes that patriotism ought be equated with killing foreigners. Just seeing the mixture of emotions, the sense of fear, hurt and anger on display, it reminds us how effective it can be when we chance upon a genuinely excellent performance in a film. There are no actively 'bad' scenes or performances, but the really good parts often serve to highlight the more mediocre.

Plot and characters aside, everyone involved in this production acquits themselves well. Furmie's direction is agreeably elegant, making use of gracefully executed crane shots and smooth tacking shots, while not pulling any punches when it comes to violence or gooey alien artefacts (and their unpleasant side-effects). Musician Brian Cachia's eerie electronic soundtrack nicely underscores the film's gloomy, doom-laden tone, while Kieran Fowler's cinematography provides an appropriately sharp, stark and at times cold texture to events.

All in all, this is a well-crafted film. While certain scenes may have felt forced or even hokey, there's a lot of talent on display here. Terminus falls prey to some of the trappings of a low-budget indie, but it also feels brave and uncompromising, and that's pretty rare. Simply considering how well the film projects its own sense of fearful apprehension and foreboding, it's well worth a watch... and just wait until you see the last five minutes. Ka-boom.

Terminus opens theatrically and is available on VOD January 22nd.

Recommended Release: Terminus

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