‘Arcadian’ Boasts Terrifying Monsters of Our Own Making [Review]

The question of whether we’ve engineered our own demise by treating the planet like garbage hangs low over Arcadian, the sprightly and fitfully frightening new movie from director Benjamin Brewer and screenwriter Michael Nilon. The former has a co-writing credit on the enthralling, if needlessly convoluted, Netflix revenge flick Reptile, while the latter boasts several production credits on Nicolas Cage vehicles, including the lively Willy’s Wonderland (the better version of Five Nights at Freddy’s in all but title) and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (surprisingly poignant). Cage is the lead here, though he mostly cedes centerstage to two fine younger actors; Jaeden Martell (It) and Maxwell Jenkins (Reacher)–so if you’re looking for a Cage-starrer it’s best to go elsewhere.

That’s not to say the committed performer–who remains one of our greatest living actors despite the fact his unique approach tends to confuse those who arrogantly wax lyrical about acting without knowing much of anything about it–isn’t reliably great here. Cage is working in a lower register than usual, closer to Pig than Renfield (both criminally underrated albeit for wildly different reasons). His performance is pared back to match Cage’s character, Paul’s, lovely brown jumper. Arcadian opens with Paul cradling two babies, reassuring them that everything is going to be okay in direct defiance of the world quite literally burning down around him. Cut to 15 years after this unnamed apocalyptic event has occurred and the trio is living an almost bucolic existence out in the middle of nowhere.

However, Paul is very strict about the boys being home before dark since whatever happened–it’s strongly hinted that it had something to do with pollution–led to “them” coming to cleanse the earth of us pesky humans. One possible explanation sounds suspiciously like COVID and this idea of a global infection taking hold before we realize what’s going on, and wiping us all out in the process, is just one blood-chilling element of this nifty little family drama. Even though the creatures are terrifying, the biggest threat at the heart of Arcadian is our fellow man. For instance, when Paul gets badly injured in a scuffle, the family’s well-to-do neighbors refuse to take him in, turning the boys down, though their stance is an entirely reasonable one to take. It calls to mind selfish anti-maskers, among others.

Considering the movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where one family–straight and white, it must be noted–has to fight back against deadly creatures popping out from every angle, comparisons to A Quiet Place are unavoidable. Early on, Paul sits by a waterfall and smokes in a moment of quiet reflection in what could be seen as a direct nod to John Krasinski’s film. And, much like A Quiet Place, what’s seldom glimpsed is far scarier than what’s shown even in darkly lit rooms. There’s one moment where Arcadian appears to feature either convincingly wobbly computer effects or something entirely practical and it’s easily one of the scariest sequences overall. But otherwise the creatures–part gorilla, part Xenomorph, with shrieking, rotating heads of death–are presented using CGI. And sadly, no matter how big the budget, it’s never going to compare to the real thing.

Thankfully, Brewer is wise enough to keep them mostly at arm’s length, allowing us to fill in the blanks based on the committed performances of his small cast. It’s unclear whether the monsters are truly a result of pollution, though it’s highly likely since they emerge through what are essentially sinkholes in the ground. They also seem to have a better lay of the land than the humans, with a cave attack demonstrating their use of the darkness against Paul and his eldest. This sequence is brilliantly done, from the pacing to how it’s lit, shot, and performed; it’s hugely tense and claustrophobic but the filmmakers don’t overplay their hand either, leaving us wanting more. Indeed, the kills that follow are sustained and surprisingly brutal (we’re clearly expected to cheer for certain characters’ deaths).

The use of handheld cameras throughout Arcadian lends it a real sense of urgency, almost as though Brewer and Nilon are actively alerting us to the dangers of continuing to mistreat the earth (even if monsters don’t come for us, boiling alive thanks to climate change doesn’t sound too appealing either). The movie is environmentally conscious with a strong message about conservation and the importance of community, but it isn’t preachy. Those looking to simply watch Nic Cage and a couple of terrified tweens battle terrifying and possibly extraterrestrial creatures will find plenty to enjoy here. The action is well-choreographed, and Brewer doesn’t waste a second getting to the good stuff, allowing just a few minutes of setup at the beginning before diving right in–even if the score often makes the movie sound a bit like a life insurance ad (if you’ve seen British commercials, you’ll understand).

The CG may not be wholly convincing but it’s effective enough to make the monsters feel like a genuine threat and Cage, Martell, and Jenkins fully sell us that they’re in near constant peril. With an effective environmental message and plenty of carnage, Arcadian stands head and shoulders above similarly themed movies despite having a fraction of the budget of films like A Quiet Place.

Catch Arcadian exclusively in theaters from April 12, 2024

Director(s): Benjamin Brewer
Writer(s): Michael Nilon
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Jaeden Martell, Maxwell Jenkins
Release date: April 12, 2024
Language: English
Run Time: 92 minutes

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