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‘Arcadian’ Review: Benjamin Brewer’s Post-Apocalyptic Film Starring Nicolas Cage Struggles Between Concept And Execution – SXSW

Arcadian director Benjamin Brewer, along with writer Mike Nilon, attempt to navigate the tumultuous waters of a post-apocalyptic narrative, showcasing a world decimated by an unspecified catastrophic event. Starring Nicolas Cage along with Jaeden Martell and Maxwell Jenkins, the film plunges into the life of a family striving to survive in a desolate landscape fraught with nocturnal terrors. Despite a cast that promises gravitas and the tantalizing premise of a stark, survivalist drama, the film ultimately fumbles, delivering a disorienting experience that fails to terrify.

The film opens on a note of chaos, as viewers are thrust into a world already in ruins, with the storyline hinging on the familial bond and survival tactics of Paul (Cage) and his sons. In this barren world destroyed by an unknown catastrophe, the remnants of humanity cling to life. Among the survivors are Paul and his two young sons, Joseph (Martell) and Thomas (Jenkins), who have found refuge in a fortified farmhouse.

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Their days are spent in an uneasy calm, but as the sun sets, a sinister force emerges from the shadows, relentlessly assaulting the family’s sanctuary. When Thomas fails to make it back to the safety of their home before nightfall, Paul has to leave the home and venture into the darkness to rescue him. As he searches, the father is confronted by the horrifying entities that stalk the night, forcing the family to confront their deepest fears and fight for their lives.

While Cage delivers a performance that underscores his veteran status, bringing a nuanced blend of resilience and paternal concern, his efforts are overshadowed by a mire of cinematic missteps that stagnates the film’s potential. The narrative’s initial mystery and suspense are intriguing, offering a glimpse into a potentially rich exploration of humanity and survival.

However, as Arcadian unfolds, the critical flaws become overt — and starts the film’s over-reliance on disorienting cinematography. The excessive use of shaky cam, intended to inject a sense of dynamism and immediacy into the action, instead blurs crucial moments. This stylistic choice, coupled with the film’s penchant for underlit scenes, transforms what should be thrilling encounters with the unknown into frustrating exercises in visual guesswork.

There are moments of cinematic craftsmanship offering a glimpse into what could have been. During the creature’s introduction, a scene meticulously orchestrated to tease the ominous presence lurking beyond the characters’ fragile sanctuary uses pacing and practical effects as an extension of this monster to create an atmosphere thick with suspense and impending doom. When the creatures are finally revealed in their entirety, the full CGI design suffers from a lack of clarity and coherence, diminishing the impact of what could have been a compelling adversary and stripping away any semblance of menace.

Also, the audience isn’t given enough context or lore to understand how the creatures or how this world operates. Arcadian opts for ambiguity regarding the nature of the catastrophe, or how the monsters even got there. This decision could have worked in its favor had the film provided a strong narrative or character-driven engagement. Instead, the lack of backstory and world-building leaves a void that the film’s inconsistent tone fails to fill, leaving the film without an anchor to cling to.

Without a world to examine the exploration of Paul, Thomas and Joseph’s psyche dissipates under the weight of underdeveloped character arcs and lackluster performances. Martell and Jenkins are given roles that demand a complex portrayal in the face of relentless adversity. Yet, their characters’ decision-making and motivations strain credibility, undermining the film’s attempt to portray a realistic struggle for survival. Their interactions with the environment and one another are hard to invest in and is exacerbated by the script’s inability to flesh out their personalities beyond the one-dimensional.

Title: Arcadian
Festival: SXSW (Narrative Feature)
Studio/distributor: IFC Films 
Director: Benjamin Brewer
Screenwriters: Mike Nilon
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jaeden Martell, Maxwell Jenkins, Sadie Soverall, Samantha Coughlan, Joe Dixon, Joel Gillman
Running time: 1 hr 32 min

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