Should You Watch Netflix's Time-Travel Thriller 'ARQ'?
Unless we're caught in some sort of repeating temporal loop that I'm unaware of, time travel is having a moment. This fall, three time-travel dramas (NBC's Timeless, ABC's Time After Time, and the CW's Frequency) will debut on network television, while Making History, a comedy starring Happy Endings' Adam Pally as a regular guy with a duffel-bag time machine, will premiere on FOX in the winter. But like a streaming Kyle Chandler who gets tomorrow's hot TV trends in his inbox today, Netflix got there first with ARQ, a new time-travel thriller that materialized on the service September 16th.
Unlike the shows that will be twisting up your brain this fall, ARQ isn't a series. Instead, it's another original movie from the streaming giant, like the recent EDM ensemble piece XOXO, the Ellen Page drama Tallulah, or the many Adam Sandler comedies populating your queue. Here's the good news for busy sci-fi fans: ARQ is less than 90 minutes long. (That's shorter than the pilot for The Get Down.) But unlike the trapped-in-a-time-loop characters in this movie written and directed by a former scribe for BBC America's cult fave Orphan Black, you only have so many hours in a day.
So, is this curiously named thriller worth your time? We processed some data with our eyeballs to come up with the following questions that will help you decide.
Do you love time loops?
Here's the elevator pitch for this movie: Groundhog Day meets Source Code meets Edge of Tomorrow. We're in!
The film opens with our very buff-looking hero Renton (Robbie Amell, from the CW's short-lived time-travel series The Tomorrow People) and his companion Hannah (Rachael Taylor of Netflix's Jessica Jones) getting a harsh wake-up call from a gang of gun-toting goons in gas masks. While trying to escape, Renton falls down some stairs and... wakes up back in the same bed with Hannah. Then the same goons interrupt our hero's morning again, only this time he's prepared and tries to kill the bad dudes. This ploy ends with Renton getting shot and... waking up in the same bed again, just before the goon squad arrives again.
What's causing the loop? It turns out that, besides getting in a workout every day, Renton is the inventor of the ARQ of the title, which Hannah helpfully describes as "an unlimited energy machine that also produces unlimited time." The machine looks like the world's most expensive metal rolling pin. It seems that, according to Renton, the bad guys "want the ARQ for their war machine," but every time he re-spawns like a video-game character at the same time and in the same location, he learns that people around him are not who they appear to be.
If you like your sci-fi movies packed with jargon (e.g., ARQ stands for "arcing recursive quine"), frantic running, and a solid twist every 15 minutes, ARQ will be comfort food. It's perfect for your friend who owns the complete Sarah Connor Chronicles on Blu-ray. Like the big machine the movie gets its title from, the plot keeps spinning at maximum efficiency. Live. Die. Repeat.
How do you feel about Edge of Tomorrow?
If the broader outlines of the plot sound vaguely familiar, you probably saw Tom Cruise's excellent 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow, which found the artist formerly known as Maverick going toe-to-toe with a sword-wielding Emily Blunt. It played with the well-worn sci-fi trope of the time loop in sly and inventive ways, turning a shoot-em-up action movie into a post-apocalyptic rom-com, a dry satire of first-person shooter gameplay, and a winking meditation on Cruise's refusal to age. It's great.
Of course, ARQ has fewer big-budget action sequences and 100% less Emily Blunt than Edge of Tomorrow, but this movie still provides some thrills. Writer-director Tony Elliott expertly paces the story by introducing new elements in each loop and planting small details that pay off later. The convoluted logistics and science-speak seem intentionally designed to inspire quizzical Reddit threads, explainer-y YouTube videos, and complicated diagrams picking it all apart. If you're inclined to go down rabbit holes like this, ARQ is here for you.
Are you tired of dystopian stories?
There was a period a couple years ago when it felt like every movie in theaters was based on a YA novel where a bunch of model-like actors ran around in tattered clothes you could find at the Gap. Though it's not based on a YA novel, and features too many swear words, gunshots, and giant pools of blood to appeal to younger viewers, ARQ is still working in the same stylistic register as recent dystopian fare like The 100, The Maze Runner, or Divergent. Renton is Mad Max gone normcore.
In the world of the movie, there's an ongoing war between a very bad corporation called Torus and a group of earnest rebels known as the Block, and the specific details about the war-torn society are equally generic. An example: the villains are super-psyched about the fact that Renton has apples in his basement science lab. So if the thought of a world without apples terrifies you, stay away.
Do you like your sci-fi to be very very serious?
To me, the appeal of the time loop as a science-fiction concept in movies and shows is that it allows writers to look at dark existential questions while also laughing at the absurdity of life. Think of Bill Murray jumping off that building in Groundhog Day, Emily Blunt shooting Cruise in the head in Edge of Tomorrow, or the exploding bank in that time-loop episode of The X-Files. Despite how disturbing those moments sound out of context, they work as bleak comedy.
Other than a brief moment of joy where Renton manages to slide a pair of scissors off a table without dropping them, ARQ doesn't pause to acknowledge the humor or poetic beauty that might occasionally come with living the same moment over and over. I found the relentless seriousness to be a little exasperating. If you're caught in a time loop, why not make the best of it once in a while?
But the characters in ARQ can't allow themselves to live a little, not with the Block and Torus still out there. They yell things like, "There's a war on! I don't have time for us!" and reply with, "Then what are you fighting for?" Serious!
How do you feel about confined spaces?
As ARQ stretches on and Renton formulates a plot to end the time loop, it becomes apparent you're watching a talky chamber drama set in a basement. It's not that a great time-travel movie requires big explosions and special effects -- see Primer for a perfect example of how to explore heady concepts on a tiny budget. But as a piece of visual storytelling, ARQ feels boxed in: the sets resemble the burned-out buildings from the Caprica sequences of Battlestar Galactica and the look of the movie is filled with gray, drab colors that wouldn't look out of place in a Syfy original movie.
Pro tip for anyone who watches this: dust off your screen and pump up the brightness before you click play.
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