Some twists exist only to surprise, to draw gasps and give a story an added jolt of tension. Other twists serve a grander purpose, pivoting a narrative or calling into question everything that came before. Some twists are essential. Extinction, the latest straight-to-Netflix sci-fi flick following The Cloverfield Paradox and How It Ends, has one of the latter twists, and that it doesn’t come until nearly an hour into the 90-minute movie is its biggest problem. We won’t spoil the twist here, but we will say that it’s the only thing that gives this movie any purpose, originality, or sense of personality.
And it doesn’t arrive until nearly an hour in.
In the film’s opening moments, we’re introduced to Peter (Michael Peña), a tech worker in a nebulous factory who’s been subject to some vivid nightmares lately. Lasers from the sky, threats to his family, and a militaristic cabal haunt his dreams, concerning both his boss David (Luke Cage‘s Mike Colter) and his wife Alice (Lizzy Kaplan). With Alice, Peter has two kids, Megan (Lilly Aspell) and Hanna (Amelia Crouch), who he’s been neglecting due to the paralyzing effects of his visions. He’s become obsessed with strange lights in the sky and, as everyone in his futuristic society soon discovers, there was a reason to be. Spaceships descend on the cityscape, as do a horde of suited-up, laser-toting extraterrestrials.
From here, we follow Peter, Alice, and the kids as they try to escape their high rise and manipulate whatever alien tech they can to suit their own needs. It’s plodding, poorly paced stuff, with the various escape attempts and action sequences curdling into a repetitive stew. Director Ben Young lacks a clear vision, with the action unfolding haphazardly across numerous jump cuts and the sets cast in the same muted, emotionless shades. The aliens cut a striking figure in their suits — which most notably feature an opaque, glassy bubble over the face — but their glitchy chirps do little to distinguish them as figures of menace.
It’s equally difficult to find much to love about Peter and Alice, who lack any real depth or sense of purpose. They’re normal people, put upon by an external threat. The question of why we’re following them, as opposed to literally anyone else, is never quite answered. As such, Peña and Kaplan look lost in the roles, delivering the script’s leaden dialogue with the requisite weight and little else. The stakes are undoubtedly high, but one can’t rely on the family in peril to convey that peril if they don’t look, act, or feel like a family.
Still, even without compelling characters, Extinction would have been a much more enjoyable experience had it distinguished itself in its early going, as opposed to its back half. The movie’s twist doesn’t just give it a sharp hook, but offers up a chewy moral complexity, as well as a deep well of empathy for characters on both sides of the divide. Extinction emerged from an early script by Spenser Cohen and Brad Kane, which was then reworked by A-list screenwriter Eric Heisserer, whose extremely spotty track record (Lights Out and the A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing reboots) includes Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning Arrival. One wonders what it looked like before and after Heisserer had his way with it. One thing’s for certain: The blunt, heavy-handed, and undercooked allusions to the Charlottesville march and our country’s modern racial tensions are new (and unnecessary) additions.
But while the script is fundamentally flawed, the direction doesn’t help. Young, who previously helmed the brutal 2016 indie Hounds of Love, feels out of his element in the sci-fi action realm. Not only is the action incomprehensible, but the film’s use of CGI is stunningly rudimentary for this day and age, turning what should be emotionally heavy moments into ones of unintentional comedy. Whatever the case — an out-of-depth director, a slashed budget, a hurried production schedule — Netflix certainly isn’t positing itself as a repository for quality sci-fi. Stick to Stranger Things, guys.