Island Zero (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
I wish more modest horror movies were like “Island Zero.” It is aware of its budgetary limitations, but it works hard to circumvent common problems that plague the genre in order to create an experience that inspires the viewer to want to stick with the curious story it has to tell. Mood and atmosphere over the usual arm-chomping and brain-bashing. The film is written by Tess Gerritsen and directed by Josh Gerritsen—names I wish to remember because I believe they have a lot more to give. This is a pretty good trial run, not for everyone but willing to engage and entertain; and I can’t wait to see what else they have to offer.
In the past few weeks, fishermen have ventured into the water and caught nothing, not even a guppy. It were as if all the fish, crabs, and lobsters have migrated from the area. But that is only one of the problems in this island, located 40 miles from Maine. Those who take their boat in the water end up disappearing, too. It has gotten so bad lately that those who wish to get out of the island have no one to transport them. It is winter, almost Christmas, and food is quickly running out. Diesel is in demand in order to keep generators running. Desperation is in the air.
I enjoyed how the story unfolds like a Stephen King novel. Here we are in an isolated community where everyone is friendly and familiar. We visit the usual hangout areas: a diner, a hotel, the docks. It is so intimate, wonderfully capturing a sense of isolation, that I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of antsy residents walking to the dock, luggages in tow, instead of taking a cab or car. The island is so small, it feels like every point of interest is within walking distance. The filmmakers know that for us to believe this community, there must be memorable, perhaps quirky, details. It is not enough for the characters to share certain accents or to sport a certain look. We must get a real sense of how they live—and later survive.
We come to know Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), a marine biologist who has long suspected this island will experience a sudden drop in marine population. He and his deceased wife, also a marine biologist, believe that there is an undiscovered apex predator out there in the ocean. There is the island doctor, Maggie (Laila Robins), who looks forward to leaving the island over the holidays and… spend some time alone with a good book. Although a good physician, there is a coldness to her that I found to be fascinating during the latter half of the story. And there is Jessie (Joanna Clarke), a server who has never left the island, currently crushing on a novelist, Titus (Matthew Wilkas), who has an appointment in New York City regarding the publishing of his latest book, the island of interest being the main source of inspiration. When asked what kind of story he’s writing, “It’s a love story,” he tells her. Uh huh. She knows what he means.
The movie provides extended exposition—which will undoubtedly frustrate many. I was, too, for a time, because there is a creature (or creatures) out there in the water but instead we are asked to sit through a whole lot of talking among the residents, oftentimes saying the same thing like how much they wish to get out of the island before resources run dry. However, it proves to be a smart move because the exchanges are meant to let our guards down. While this is happening, clues are being dropped left and right about what is actually going on. This isn’t to suggest there’s a big twist waiting. But certain revelations in the final half make sense in retrospect.
I liked the look of the creature. (Its body is shown about two-thirds of the way through—so patience is required.) Although not terribly original (it reminded me of a Pixar character), the film made me want to examine it whole, slice its limbs (does it have limbs?), and put its organs (if any) under a microscope. We are given information on how the organism hunts, what time of day, what it is attracted to, what repels it. We even get to see the color of its blood and hear suggestion on why it is like that. In many creature-feature films, especially those with sizable budgets, these are considered insignificant information. What matters is the violence and the gore. Not here. Although not particularly exciting, I found it to be refreshing.
The picture’s most critical shortcoming is the final ten minutes. I felt as though the filmmakers threw away what they worked so hard for by rushing through the fates of some of our protagonists. As a result, what should have been dramatic exits end up as mere footnotes. For a story that exercises a whole lot of patience, the resolution lacks precisely this element. If only it were able to hold its breath for a little while longer.