All of us have had THOSE dreams. The ones that feel so real, you wake up and immediately call or check on someone/something to make sure that what you dreamt didn’t really happen. The ones that plague me the most happen to involve teeth. Nothing like dreaming you lost all of your teeth and frantically waking up to check that they’re all still there. But what if your dreams were a terrifying vision of what was to come? This is the basis for the plot of Netflix’s new film, Extinction…
…Directed by Ben Young (Hounds of Love) and written by Eric Heisserer (Arrival), Extinction tells the story of Peter (Michael Pena), a man who is having a recurring dream about losing his family during an alien invasion. The dreams have become so real that they have caused Ben to sink into a deep paranoia, which is creating a wedge between he and his wife, Alice (Lizzy Caplan). Ben believes these dreams are a vision of the future, while Alice is worried her husband is slipping further and further into insanity. When Ben’s visions turn out to be correct, he and his family must fight their way to safety through hordes of invaders hell-bent on destroying life on Earth.
At first glance, Extinction is littered with talent and potential. Hounds of Love was one of my favorite horror films of 2016, a film in which Young showed off a ton of panache and ability as a filmmaker. Heisserer wrote the award-winning Arrival, also in the vein of “alien invasion” films, and has a history of writing notable (though not great) genre fair like Lights Out, The Thing (prequel), and Final Destination 5, which is highly underrated for just how fun it is. I also love Pena and Caplan. Yet, despite all of this, Extinction is a surprisingly bland film that feels like just about every other direct to video alien invasion film, a lot of which can be found on Netflix.
Heisserer’s script allows plenty of opportunity for the type of waterworks you might expect during a film involving a family’s fight against their own destruction, but Pena and Caplan have almost no chemistry together. Caplan does well in her soft-spoken frustration with Pena’s character. It wouldn’t be easy to deal with someone you cared about who you thought was going crazy, and that’s written all over her face. I’m sad to say it’s Pena who I found difficult to believe throughout Extinction. Give Pena credit for trying something different. Although this isn’t the first time the often hilarious actor has appeared in something a little more dramatic, it is one of the few times he has starred in a film like this, and with that comes the responsibility of carrying an emotional sensibility that the audience can relate to, one that Pena achieves with mixed results. At times, I’m able to buy into his quiet desperation and paranoid mentality, but once the drama kicks in and Pena needs to convince us that he and his family are in real danger, Pena offers little in expressing real fear. Which is important in a film that relies heavily on a more dramatic tone. You can’t hand me a Bud Light and try telling me it’s a fine, imported beer with a smile on your face and expect me to trust you. I’m not falling for it! None of this is to say that Pena is a bad dramatic actor, but as the lead in a film completely devoid of any comedy (comedy being Pena’s forte), his casting just didn’t work for me.
As mentioned above, it’s shocking to me that Extinction lacks so much in entertainment value. It neither has the alluring style of Young’s other work, nor the fun horror of Heisserer’s voice. It’s not that Extinction isn’t “fun enough”, it isn’t meant to be, it’s just that there simply isn’t much that stands out about it. If you’re a sci-fi fan, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. In many ways, Extinction beat for beat borrows from the typical “alien invasion” film playbook, without adding any additional concepts of its own.
What’s most alarming is Extinction’s lack of dread or suspense. Again, Young obliterated my mind with the staggering perversity of his film Hounds of Love, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that Extinction is an anomaly. That being said, its one that feels largely uninspired compared to his previous work. The confrontations between our cast of characters and the invaders are good, and there are moments where Extinction comes close to nailing the tragedy of its premise, but none of it ever quite punches you in the gut the way it needs to in order to succeed. Even Pena’s “nightmares” could use a little more terror for us as the audience to truly understand why he is so afraid. I would be scared too if I kept having the same dream about citizens being mowed down in the streets by alien ships, but in order for an audience to go along with Pena and his quest in getting his wife to trust him, we need more than a couple quick shots of gunfire and explosions. This isn’t a Michael Bay film.
Even the invaders feel borrowed from various sci-fi films, though they are excellently designed by costume designers Pierre Bohanna and Suzie Harman. The bug-ish suits which the aliens wear give off a Halo vibe, coupled with a clicking sound reminiscent of the Predator. They look cool, but they aren’t very intimidating. It might’ve helped if they had some kind of unique, frightening weaponry, but for a seemingly advanced race, they even fall short in that category, employing what might as well be standard issue rifles. There is a reason for that, but Extinction desperately needs a little flare, and using more creative weaponry would’ve been a great opportunity for it.
Extinction benefits most from an unpredictable twist that adds an interesting layer to an otherwise uninteresting film. The twist poses questions about humanity, love, what it means to be alive, and what makes us deserving of all three. Extinction attempts to stand on this twist, but finds itself on wobbly legs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a decent film has a decent twist, but a great film isn’t great because of it. The twist is unexpected, but I’m not going to sit here and act like it saves the film altogether. It merely adds a little bit of meat onto the bone, and it isn’t even that juicy.
Unless you’re really into sci-fi films that have good ideas wrapped up inside of plain packages with an unsatisfying resolution, Extinction is one that you can skip for now…at least until you’re in hiding during an alien apocalypse and you have nothing better to do but Netflix and chill out.
Extinction is available now on Netflix.
By Matt Konopka
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