In the Shadow of the Moon (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
A bus driver, a cook, and a pianist drop dead in 1988 Philadelphia with copious amount of blood having leaked out of their eyes and nostrils. Initial observations point to bioterrorism as the city is plunged into chaos by an unknown threat. Police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) is determined to become a detective and so he, alongside his less enthusiastic partner (Bokeem Woodbine), dives head first in solving the mystery despite his brother-in-law (Michael C. Hall), the actual detective in charge of the case, warning him against such reckless action. Lockhart, after all, has a pregnant wife (Rachel Keller), waiting at home. The eager police officer is not yet aware that this case will become his obsession for decades.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” is a highly engaging, eye-catching sci-fi mystery-thriller so filled with intrigue, urgency, and wonderful action set pieces—until about halfway though when nearly all these positive elements are thrown out the window in order to make room for ponderous philosophical musings about fate and possessing the power to change the future. The change in tone, pacing, and quality is so drastic that by the end of the picture, I felt compelled to look up the number of writers who helmed the screenplay (Geoff Tock and Gregory Weidman). Such level of confusion is usually attributed to having too many writers being unable to narrow down their ideas and explore them in meaningful ways that fit one particular story. What a letdown.
The story unfolds across decades. The high energy of the film’s first hour runs parallel to Locke who has something to prove, convinced that there must be a simple answer to the serial murders. Holbrook excels in the physical demands of the role. When his character is taking notes of the crime scene using only his eyes, running after a person of interest, or holding a suspect at gunpoint, we believe Locke’s determination. He is a man of the law not just in uniform but also in spirit. And that makes him a character worth putting under the magnifying glass. We grow curious at which point he will break—if he ever does.
However, notice as the actor gets increasingly buried in hair and cosmetics that signify passing of the years, his power to maintain a compelling character is weakened—a common problem when it comes to weak writing coupled with heavy makeup. For example, observe closely during Locke’s interactions with his teenage daughter (Sarah Dugdale; Quincy Kirkwood plays Amy at age nine). These moments of longing are supposed to be sad or touching because the two have lost a special connection. Case first, daughter second. It is a challenge to feel something genuine for three reasons: the dialogue is flat and expository, the little facial ticks that make all the difference in dramatic moments are buried underneath the maquillage, and the pacing stops dead in its tracks. The screenplay is not written in such a way that the human drama functions to move the action forward. It drags.
The philosophical questions are neither deep nor new to the genre. Themes that touch upon going back in time and changing the future is explored better with more thought and consistency in movies like James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” and Rian Johnson’s “Looper.” At least in those films, their worlds are so defined that the drama and musings feel natural. They even have room for a sense of humor. “In the Shadow of the Moon” has ambition surely, but it fails to deliver all the way not to compete against its great inspirations but to stand strong on its own.