One Man’s Trash: Extinction

First, Netflix picked up Annihilation, and now it’s got Extinction. I’m starting to feel pretty good about next week’s pitch for my humanistic sci-fi opus, Obliteration.

Dateline: the future! Specifically, some nameless and appropriately futuristic city. Peter (Michael Peña) is a workaholic, toiling away in a factory that makes… something, I guess? He’s tasked with the critical role of plugging a big black box into an otherwise empty hallway and kind of just standing there. Needless to say, Peter is barely a fixture in the lives of his wife Alice (Lizzy Caplan) and two precocious daughters. It’s just that even when he’s there, he’s not there, you know? The poor guy can’t get a good night’s sleep, tormented by visions of lights searing through the night sky… of his neighbors mercilessly slaughtered as an army of aliens unleash their otherworldly arsenal. Thankfully – he types, relieved and wiping sweat from his brow – they’re just waking nightmares and nothing to fret about.

Still, it’s all-consuming! Even when Alice throws an elegant dinner party, Peter can barely be bothered to notice, instead staring through his telescope on the balcony the entire time. One of his neighbors in this metropolitan high-rise chats him up, trying to get Peter to acknowledge what all this is doing to his family when… Boom! Zap! Colossal alien mecha-spider-bot-thing! Turns out that Peter wasn’t suffering from nightmares; they were flashes of a future yet to come. An army of otherworldly soldiers is laying siege to this apartment building, and all manner of alien war-tech are blasting everything to holy heck outside. Oh, and all those pesky premonitions…? Peter can leverage them to guide his family and friends towards the safety (I guess) of his factory several blocks away. Still, there are a whole bunch of xeno-warriors in between here and there, and the building’s on the verge of collapse. Gulp!

[insert Xenu gag here]

Extinction makes for a reasonably solid elevator pitch. It has a couple of recognizable faces in the lead. The film’s premise of a family caught in the crossfire of an extraterrestrial blitzkrieg is passably intriguing. Some key twists and revelations upend everything viewers had come to know. Maybe this could’ve made for a standout episode of Black Mirror. It’s just not much a movie, at least not as realized by out-of-his-depth director Ben Young (Hounds of Love).

Peña and Caplan are traditionally charismatic actors, but they largely sleepwalk their way through Extinction. Like entirely too many of the film’s other central roles, they’re archetypes, not characters. Hardly anybody exhibits anything recognizable as a personality. (That is, except for Lex Shrapnel as the family’s neighbor, who I guess wasn’t cc:ed on the memo to be as affectless as possible. He has more charisma than the rest of the cast combined, plus he has the most awesome name this side of Zap Rowsdowser.) There’s no urgency to speak of in the endlessly repetitive, woefully uninteresting first act, and the pace tediously trudges along.

Imagine that flashlight in DOLBY VISION

We’re meant to identify with Peter and his family. The idea is that when we become well-acquainted with who they are as people, this emotional investment ratchets up the tension when they’re in the crosshairs of an alien laser rifle. It’s just that even if I clenched my fists and tried really, really hard, I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of them. When all hell breaks loose, they might as well just be NPCs in a creaky, aging video game collecting dust in a Best Buy bargain bin. Oh no! Look who’s in harm’s way now! A teary reunion of characters who thought they’d never see each other again! As much as I wanted to like Extinction, I couldn’t muster more than an indifferent shrug.

Extinction fails as a character piece. Despite boasting a budget that probably exceeds every movie previously featured in this column combined, it also fails as a visual effects spectacle. The effects are frequently of such a dismal quality it’s hard to imagine that Universal originally intended this to play on thousands of screens in theaters across the country just a few short months ago. I am impressed by the design of the alien soldiers, clad in a sort of bubble-armor, at least to whatever limited extent you’re able to see them. That brings us to how Extinction fails as an action flick. Despite ample gunplay, CGI mechs, and no shortage of explosions, there’s never any rush of adrenaline. The otherworldly warriors don’t evoke any real sense of menace. Extinction seems to know it too, overcompensating for the poorly staged action with frenzied quick cuts. Between the muted, frequently interchangeable backgrounds and the hypercaffeinated editing, this is a genuinely unpleasant movie to watch.

Lizzy Caplan never makes it through an alien invasion unscathed

That’s not the point of Extinction. It’s not a film; it’s a twist delivery mechanism. The intended shocks of its reveals are muted when there’s no reason to care about any of these characters or the world in which they live. (And while I admittedly didn’t see these surprises coming beforehand, they’re really not that clever.) Despite offering so much promise, Extinction ranks as the single worst movie yet featured in this column. I mean, at least Clowntergeist had a clowntergeist going for it.

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