In 2016, first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg released a tight and vicious little film called 10 Cloverfield Lane. And though it shares some of its namesake with 2008’s found-footage monster romp Cloverfield, the similarities end there. Until about the last 10 minutes of Cloverfield Lane when we discover the events of the first film serve as a backdrop and overarching human event and suddenly we see a universe forming...
...Insular stories, unique and separate but all told against a massive alien event. It was a concept I was immediately invested in so upon learning that the new anthology outing Portals was going to utilize a similar framework I found my interest piqued.
Portals begins as mankind, at the modern pinnacle of its scientific achievement, generates its first artificial black hole. Shortly thereafter a series of power surges and blackouts plunge the world into chaos and panic and then the portals come. Reminiscent of the rectangular slate-colored monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the portals begin to appear around the world, emanating noise, light, and even selectively-audible speech. No one can explain where they came from or what their function is and the four segments of the anthology, perhaps intentionally, do little to alleviate.
Portals reunites V/H/S 2 alums Greg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, and Eduardo Sanchez (notably one half of the director duo behind The Blair Witch Project) in addition to Liam O’Donnell (Skyline). “The Other Side”, O’Donnell’s directorial contribution to the anthology is arguably the weaker of the bunch and unfortunately the one we’re forced to endure most often as it serves as punctuation for the other segments in lieu of the now-traditional wraparound. It follows husband and father Adam (Neil Hopkins) as he and his family are en route to unite with family as the bizarre portal events unfold. After Adam encounters a portal and blacks out he awakens under medical confinement as a result of his being the first person to come into contact with one and survive. The segment’s attempts at heady, high-concept science fiction ring hollow when struck and cause the whole house of cards to collapse given that they serve as the bones on which the narrative is hung.
I was most excited for Tjahjanto’s segment “Sarah” as his short “Safe Haven” in V/H/S 2, involving a bizarre and reclusive Indonesian cult, was easily the most shocking and unsettling of the bunch. “Sarah” centers on a pair of sisters in a parking structure in Jakarta as the initial blackouts hit and a portal appears. Tjahjanto extorts tension and claustrophobia from his setting to razor-sharp effect as the sisters attempt to escape and adds a harrowing hivemind component to the terror. While not quite the breathless exercise that “Safe Haven” was, “Sarah” still manages to punch its way into the number two slot.
Every anthology has its standout and Portals found its own in “Call Center”, a compelling workplace segment pulled together by Greg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez. “Call Center” puts us in the middle of the immediate chaos following the initial blackout as group of emergency dispatchers attempt to field the flood of panicked and confused calls that result. Hale and Sanchez smartly humanize those disembodied voices often taken for granted, reminding us that the fear for kith and kin is also real for them when the skies go dark. Paul McCarthy-Boyington and Shellye Broughton turn crackling performances as Stan, a slightly off-putting agent with insight into the crisis, and Miss Kathy, his harried supervisor. The office tension is thrown into chaos when a portal appears and the dispatch agents find themselves trapped. To divulge any more would do you a disservice. Suffice it to say there’s a reason this segment rises to the top of the bottle.
As with all anthologies, it’s invariably a mixed bag. And in the end we’re often left wishing we’d walked away with just a little more than we got. While that might be close to the case here it is entirely refreshing to see a group of veterans stepping out from the catacombs of the supernatural in favor of science fiction. Space, science, and the unknown offer us plenty to work with in the dimensions of fear without falling back on ghosts and goblins.
Portals appears in limited theaters and VOD on October 25th via Bloody Disgusting and Screen Media.
By Paul Bauer