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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.20.14] United Kingdom scifi

Scintilla takes a well worn premise and adds nothing particularly new to it. Following a group of hard-bitten mercenaries as they escort an Important Scientist through war-torn Eastern Europe some time in the near future, it starts strong but sags in the middle and soon becomes a cliche ridden mess, let down by cardboard characters and endless expository dialogue. It sounds strange, but I was enjoying this film right up until I realised that I really wasn't enjoying it.

The film starts in true Escape From New York style, as battle-scarred war veteran 'Jim' (John Lynch) is offered a pardon from prison in exchange for his services as a guide and bodyguard. He recruits a team of ultimate bad-asses and proceeds with the mission: To infiltrate a former Soviet army barracks which has been taken over by "terrorists" (a deliciously vague term), and escort a scientist to an underground bunker containing some kind of secret weapon, the recovery of which will presumably win the war for his shady employers.

Anyone who's sat through the offerings from the Outpost series, or caught last year's brilliant Frankenstein's Army (review), will be familiar with the tropes of the 'underground bunker sci-fi horror' genre, and will be aware of how wildly it can vary in quality. Scintilla is a duff addition, but it has a few good things going for it. The first act is strong, as we're introduced to Jim's team and get a little background on the characters as they gear up and bicker a little before trekking through a dangerous minefield. They appear to be a pretty rag-tag group of British ex-military types, each with their own agenda and variously shifting allegiances, and in order to sneak into the army camp they send in two of their men disguised as engineers. This section is particularly engaging and well handled, offering some suspense as the men fumble their Russian accents and pretend to be cheerfully drunk on vodka in an attempt to appear as harmless buffoons on an errand.

After the gang successfully blag their way inside the base and descend into the labyrinthine corridors of the underground facility, the pace slows down terribly and the film begins to fall apart. We get a little action as the group are attacked by mutated, syringe wielding mole-men (!) but once the mystery unfolds and we learn about the bunker's secrets the plot grinds to a halt and we're drenched in boring expository dialogue concerning genetic engineering. The characters have little do at this point except stand around blinking while excuses are made by shrugging scientists and flashbacks abound. An inevitable and predicable double-cross leads to a brief firefight in an attempt to resuscitate the plot, but by this time the film has revealed itself as essentially a confused and mediocre bargain-bin sci-fi.

Were writer/director Billy O'Brien able to keep things moving and introduce these plot elements in a more organic and less clunking fashion, we might be able to forgive how familiar and even hackneyed they seem; even a relatively low budget film such as this can dress up a daft story and make it engaging with some witty one-liners and a brisk enough pace, and to be fair, O'Brien does a fine job in terms of nuts-and-bolts action. The real problem though is the lack of strong characters and decent writing. John Lynch looks good holding a rifle and stalking though a wasteland, but delivers uninspired dialogue in a dull monotone, and as much as I enjoyed the initial character set-ups, we don't really get to know our supporting players well enough to care about them before they start getting picked off by the script. The single exception here is character actor Ned Dennehy, who plays a boozy old grunt called Harris and manages to imbue his character with enough good humour that we wish we could just follow him around on his own.

I kept thinking, as the film began to tank, what ever happened to Neil Marshall? He could do this stuff in his sleep and really knew how to pace his films and keep them punchy and entertaining... Come back, Neil!

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Erm (6 years ago) Reply

Neil Marshall is directing Game of Thrones and Troll Hunter remake. There is a site called the IMDb that has all that type of info.


projectcyclops (6 years ago) Reply

@Erm: Just a wee joke. It's been 4 years since his last feature came out.

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