Entertainment

Netflix's Sci-Fi Thriller 'In the Shadow of the Moon' Is More Ambitious Than It Looks

in the shadow of the moon
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Over the last few years, Netflix has trained its loyal subscribers to expect very little from its often middling, mostly ponderous science-fiction movies. As the mid-budget, non-horror genre film continues to fade from theaters, the streaming giant has taken upon the task of producing (and occasionally picking up from other studios) titles like Io, The Titan, Extinction, How It Ends, and Spectral. With a few exceptions, these dreary dystopian parables and wannabe mind-benders are benignly watchable, populated with familiar faces and passable special effects, but they're mostly empty, like stretched-out Black Mirror episodes with their brains removed. Most of all, they lack ambition. 

If there's one thing to say about In the Shadow of the Moon, the company's latest algorithmically-friendly sci-fi offering starring Boyd Holbrook as an increasingly grizzled detective tracking a serial killer across time, it's that the movie is wildly ambitious. It takes big, risky swings. Though it has an original script by writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock, the story feels like it was adapted from a knotty, complicated novel or a thick, impenetrable comic you keep eyeing on a friend's shelf. Directed by Cold in July filmmaker Jim Mickle, who recently oversaw Sundance TV's Joe R. Lansdale adaptation Hap and Leonard, it has grimy sensibility, a political conscious, and a loopy time-travel structure. Imagine a Philadelphia-set True Detective meets The Terminator, and you'll get a decent sense of what it's going for. 

The somber, chin-scratching tone is established right away with the opening scene set in the clearly troubled Philadelphia of 2025. Through a shattered skyscraper window, Mickle's camera gazes down on the smoke-filled aftermath of a terrorist attack as sirens blare, fires rage, and a torn flag flutters through the air. Even if it's not quite a post-Skynet hellscape or a total Mad Max-style meltdown, the vibes are bad. Clearly, the near-future is not so bright.

From there, the film makes its first of many chronological jumps back to the Philly of 1988, where a bus driver, a concert pianist, and a cheesesteak-concocting line cook all suffer from a mysterious medical freak-out that causes them to bleed out through the nose and die in increasingly grisly manners. (Later, we discover they all experienced a not-fun-sounding ailment referred to as "brain disintegration.") In the midst of these three brutal deaths, a hooded figure sprints away through the shadow-filled streets, implying that she's responsible for the seemingly disconnected carnage. 

Luckily, dogged rookie cop Thomas Lockhart (Holdbrook), first seen struggling to make pancakes for his pregnant wife, is on the case. Though he's not a detective, Lockhart has ambitions to be one and likes to pester his higher-up-in-the-department brother-in-law Holt, played by Michael C. Hall with typical know-it-all bluster. Along with his "too old for this shit" partner Maddox (Fargo Season 2 breakout Bokeem Woodbine), Lockhart attempts to make the connections between the gruesome killings, which also allows Mickle to remain in a noir-inflected procedural comfort zone. The regional touches can feel a little broad -- do we really need the Sixers game on the radio and shot of a Sixers mug on a desk? -- but the decision to place this in a specific city, instead of a vague metro area, is admirable, at least.  

in the shadow of the moon
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

The large problems with the film emerge as the narrative moves closer to the present, the tone begins to shift, and Lockhart grows more obsessed with solving the case. (Holbrook, channeling both Colin Farrell and Matthew McConaughey at points, even sports a wispy old man beard.) The story is filled with plenty of plot and incident -- frantic car chases, tragic deaths of loved ones, hand-to-hand combat in train stations, and even a scene where our protagonist gets tossed from a plane into the ocean -- but the events have little emotional impact and often reveal even less about the intriguing but ill-defined temporal shenanigans afoot, which I won't spoil here. 

Instead, most of the mechanics are dealt with in occasional mumbo-jumbo-filled exposition dumps and stray references to the lunar cycles. It's not hard to guess that Cleopatra Coleman's Rya, the woman who keeps appearing in curiously timed intervals, has a hidden logic and ideological motivation behind her violent activities; she hints at her true intentions in her first confrontation with Lockhart. But Mickle and the film's screenwriters hold back the inevitable reveal for so long, aiming for a Zodiac-like scope and asking the viewer to be invested in Lockhart's personal journey, that you'll likely start to lose interest down the stretch. Similarly, the political dimension to the story has a tentative, undercooked quality to it.
 
When In the Shadow of the Moon was first announced, Mickle said in a statement that he was excited to work with Netflix because "any studio that makes Okja has a permanent place in my heart.” He was right to be excited about the freedom Netflix can offer, particularly to filmmakers looking to stretch their legs. In its best moments, In the Shadow of the Moon does occasionally bring to mind the genre-splicing work of Okja director Bong Joon-Ho, particularly his 2003 crime procedural Memories of Murder. But simply aiming high isn't always enough. If the execution isn't there, a movie like In the Shadow of the Moon ends up living in the shadow of the more adventurous, less derivative films that inspired it.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.