D: Tony Elliott / 88m
Cast: Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor, Shaun Benson, Gray Powell, Jacob Neayem, Adam Butcher, Tantoo Cardinal
In the future, a man (Amell) wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning and there’s a woman (Taylor) sleeping next to him. Suddenly, men wearing air filtration masks burst in; when the man resists them he’s rendered unconscious. When he wakes for the second time, he and the woman are tied to chairs in the basement. The men are threatening, but will leave if the man gives them his “scrips”, credit notes they believe he has a large supply of. The home invaders leave the couple to think about it. The man finds a way to free himself and the woman. The man attempts to escape and is killed in the process.
In the future, the man (whose name is Renton) wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning and there’s a woman (whose name is Hannah) sleeping next to him. Suddenly, men wearing air filtration masks burst in; when Renton resists them he’s rendered unconscious. When he wakes for the second (fourth?) time, he and Hannah are tied to chairs in the basement. The men are threatening, but will leave if the man gives them his “scrips”, credit notes they believe he has a large supply of. The home invaders leave the couple to think about it. The man finds a way to free himself and the woman. Aware that, somehow, this has already happened, he forms a plan to kill the intruders by releasing cyanide gas into the ventilation system. While he turns on the system, he waits for Hannah to release the gas. But she doesn’t, and is revealed to be in collusion with the men. Renton hands over the scrips but is then shot and killed.
Renton wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning… and his predicament is beginning all over again. He formulates another approach but this backfires as well, and so on, until one by one, Hannah and the intruders become aware that they’re all stuck in a time loop, one that lasts for around three hours and fourteen minutes, endlessly repeating itself. The cause is a device, the ARQ (pronounced Ark), that Renton was working on for the Torus Corporation, and which he stole from them when he realised that its properties as a perpetual motion machine could be used as a weapon. The intruders, and Hannah, are members of a rebel group called The Bloc, and Renton is convinced that they’re after the ARQ and the need for scrips is incidental. Not wanting to let either side get their hands on the ARQ, Renton tries to figure out a way of escaping the time loop, saving himself and Hannah, and foiling the plans of the Torus Corporation and the Bloc.
Writer/director Tony Elliott’s first feature, ARQ is a quirky, sincere sci-fi drama that is refreshingly free of the kind of initial setting up period that would normally introduce us to the characters and their surroundings before letting them loose in the overall plot. Instead, Elliott throws us and Renton straight into the thick of things, and with a great deal of aplomb, lures his main character, and the viewer, into thinking that a solution to the time loop can be easily arrived at – and despite our knowing that nothing that easy is likely to happen; this is a time paradox movie after all.
With each successive loop, the movie creates more and more unexpected twists and turns, and in doing so, proves remarkably refreshing to watch. Of course, things get increasingly worse with every loop, and there’s an awful lot of dying involved (mostly by Renton), but Elliott’s script retains a fair degree of optimism as Renton’s efforts to solve the problem of the time loop and the ARQ’s role in it gathers momentum and urgency. The necessary internal logic that keeps everything as credible as possible is strictly maintained – for the most part – and one huge flaw aside, keeps the viewer hooked and wanting to see what happens next (the flaw involves the ARQ and what’s needed to shut it down). As Renton’s dilemma becomes more acute – can he afford for even the Bloc, the nominal good guys in this story, to have the ARQ? – Elliott works hard to maintain a level of suspense that also allows the relationship between Renton and Hannah to be explored in some detail.
Their back story allows for a degree of ethical debate, but thankfully it’s not at the expense of the movie’s more acute thriller elements. But it does add some much needed emotional depth to what would otherwise be a straighforward sci-fi thriller. Both Amell (best known for roles in TV shows such as The Flash and The Tomorrow People) and Taylor (also a TV alumni from shows such as 666 Park Avenue and Jessica Jones) strive for an honesty and a sincerity in their roles, and while they both stumble occasionally thanks to minor inconsistencies in Elliott’s script, their commitment to the material is evident in every scene and every twist and turn of the narrative.
The story plays out in a claustrophobic home setting, with a splendid mix of futuristic and old-fashioned production design courtesy of Oleg M. Savytski that makes Renton’s home look entirely practical for his needs and not just the script’s. If occasionally it feels like it’s a home designed to replicate a warren, with too many corridors and rooms for comfort, it merely adds to the level of anxiety created by the recurring time loop and the feeling that there’s no escape. Even when Elliott allows Renton and Hannah a brief respite by letting them go outside, they’re too uncomfortable with the open space (and a further mystery) to stay there. They return inside, and their brief sojourn is forgotten, another wrinkle in the machinations of the ARQ.
Elliott makes good use of his limited resources and keeps things moving intelligently and with a good deal of visual flair, despite the gloomy, and sometimes oppressive, atmosphere. The ARQ itself is nothing more than a revolving drum, and doesn’t always carry the weight of being such an important component of the story. Elsewhere, Elliott’s decision to make one of the intruders into an all-out bad guy adds unease to the narrative, and allows the story to go off in some unexpected directions. It’s this willingness to change the storyline and take chances with the material and the characters that is, ultimately, the movie’s biggest strength. And if these chances don’t always pay off, it’s a small price to pay for a largely solid and deliberately unprepossessing movie that tries hard to be different – and largely succeeds.
Rating: 7/10 – some viewers may be put off by the familiarity of some of the twists and turns thrown up by the time loop, but ARQ isn’t afraid to mix expectations and surprises, and it often manages to transcend both; a small-scale triumph then – not without flaws though – and a movie that has been carefully thought through from the off, it’s been assembled with a fair degree of skill and precision.