Movie review: Extinction (2018)

Another from a growing line of Netflix sci-fi movies, Extinction is a refreshing change to the overused alien invasion trope. While not perfect, it is a solid TV movie that I found more entertaining than the dreary Titan or Anon. Unfortunately, it relies too much on its twist ending, and this relegates the movie to a “see once” status. The visuals, acting and story itself do not warrant a second look.

Netflix has been buying movies left and right. It’s not fair to consider these works failures for not being on the big screen. Movie studios had been releasing plenty of straight-to-video titles in the past, but now that video is not old enough yet to be attractive to hipsters, it is often more cost-effective to sell the rights to such movies to Netflix, rather than to invest into their own streaming service. Some such movies were quite good: Annihilation comes to mind immediately. Others were not so. The already mentioned Anon and especially Titan were flat and depressing. And Cloverfield Paradox was just bad. Extinction is different: it’s an action sci-fi set in a vibrant world, full of bit characters.

The movie centers on a family of four, headed by Peter (played by Michael Pena), and his wife Alice (Lizzy Caplan). Peter tends to have dreams and visions of an impending doom: an alien invasion, the resistance fighting back, blood on his hands. These dreams are driving him crazy. He makes mistakes at work, and his family life quickly deteriorates. However, one evening his visions come true, as strange craft appear and start indiscriminately killing everyone. Driven by his visions, which are confusingly wrong, Peter and his family must navigate the high-rise they are living in, the streets below and finally tunnels to reach the relative safety of the factory he works in, while avoiding aliens who disembarked from the ships. One of those aliens, however, has made it is personal mission to track them down.

The first two thirds of the movie are standard fare alien invasion. However, the scale of the invasion, especially the number of environments and actors involved, pushes this movie beyond the standard fare of cheap TV movies for the Sci-Fi Channel to theatrical territory, along the lines of Skyline. The mood, though, is different. We don’t know who the aliens are, and we can’t even begin to understand their motives. In other movies, the aliens are trying to abduct people (Signs, the already mentioned Skyline), or are trying to kill with impersonal weapons of mass destruction, like in Independence Day. Here, however, the killing is very personal. Alien soldiers shoot or stab individuals to death. The only similar movie I could think of was Battle Los Angeles, which also starred Michael Pena, albeit in a much smaller role (and which, for all sense and purposes, was a category or two more monumental than Extinction).

This senseless killing, without any apparent motive, combined with the strong presence of Lizzy Caplan, made me feel like I was watching a version of Cloverfield, without the found footage camera work. As in Cloverfield, Caplan’s character gets ultimately injured, grinding the entire escape to a halt. Speaking of Caplan, I found her performance to be strong. She displays quiet suffering at the beginning when her husband is borderline insane, but even then there is an underlying strength that comes to shine during their escape. I felt that Pena overplayed his part a little, though. Their daughters are a mixed bag: the older is delightful to watch, but the younger is limited to screaming at the worst moments. The other actors are just bit players without any personality given to them by the script.

The script is a controversial point of Extinction. People’s expectations were running high, since the screenplay was fine-tuned by the person responsible for Arrival. As a result, many people gave the movie worse reviews than they would have otherwise. Having not known this fact, I found the story to be straight-forward, but very tight, and when the twist comes towards the end of the movie, I could finally justify all the seeming inconsistencies from earlier. Unfortunately, the script was focusing too much on the story, and the characters just fell on the wayside. They were flat, unattractive, and even the best actors wouldn’t be able to improve on them.

The action is a mixed bag. While the suspenseful moments are well done, the director seems to be focusing on inferior action sequences, which largely consists of shootouts with railguns and a few unlikely hand-to-hand combat sequences. Fortunately, the movie is dark at those times, so that the quality of fighting is easily overlooked.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie. I’ve heard some people claim that the twist at the end was telegraphed way ahead of time, but I did not expect it. Without it, Extinction would have been an above average alien invasion survival flick, but with the ending I found it to be one of the best sci-fi movies Netflix has released this year. It’s certainly worth watching once.

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