Nicolas Cage Thriller Arcadian Is a Scant Post-Apocalyptic Indie

Movies Reviews Nicolas Cage
Nicolas Cage Thriller Arcadian Is a Scant Post-Apocalyptic Indie

A survival story set in a dystopian wasteland which pits loving families against eldritch horrors might sound like the next A Quiet Place film, but it isn’t. I’m talking about Everything Everywhere All at Once visual effects artist Benjamin Brewer’s own post-apocalypse feature. Arcadian coincidentally comes out a mere two months prior to the umpteenth installment of the A Quiet Place franchise. (Wait—are there really only three of these films so far?) Starring Nicolas Cage, Arcadian is a far simpler, less flashy tale of parents and children coping with life on a hostile earth, in which nocturnal demons have overrun the planet for reasons that even our characters seem unclear on. Something about a plague, or mutating insects, or both…whatever it is, it’s caused a vast extermination of humankind by way of a hoard of impeccably designed creatures that move, to terrifying effect, like real-life Looney Tunes. Self-elongating limbs, noodle necks, furry bodies (filled with bugs??) and big duck-billed retractable mouths that wind up and smack open and shut like a mutant Daffy Duck—this is what hunts Cage’s Paul and his two teen sons, Joseph (Jaeden Martell) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins).

It’s a terrific monster design, and the film’s dark lighting compensates for what likely amounts to iffy-looking CGI. The camera never dwells quite long enough on the beasts for us to see any loose seams in the stitchwork. But the monsters are what Arcadian has going for it, in a narrative with not particularly impressive visuals otherwise, one neither strong on storytelling, world-building, nor character work, and whose litany of unanswered questions are more exhausting than intriguing. Answering at least a few might work to fill in some of the noticeable gaps. As is, Arcadian follows Paul, Joseph, and Thomas 15 years after an opening sequence, in which Paul darts through a cacophonous world to make it back to his two defenseless infant sons. In the present, the trio lives in a remote farmhouse with near-zero contact to other humans, save from the well-fortified Rose Farm some stretch nearby, which houses a mother, father, teen daughter Charlotte (Sadie Overall), and a compact militia of gunmen. By day, Paul’s small family resembles normal only in that the brothers bicker and their father does his best to mitigate the sibling ire, and by night they fortify their home in order to stave off attacks.

One day, on his way back from an unauthorized visit to the Rose Farm and Charlotte—the object of his affections—Thomas trips in the woods and falls into a crevice just prior to nightfall. While Paul sacrifices safety to save his son, Joseph hangs back at the house and sets a trap to catch one of the creatures and study it, his scientific fascination juxtaposing the more carnal impulsivity of his brother. During the successful rescue, Paul gravely wounds himself while fending off the creatures, and his sons must plead with the adults at the Rose Farm for medicine which is unwaveringly denied to them. In the end, the selfishness of the adults is seemingly punished in a climactic attack by the cunning creatures, and it’s up to the three adolescents to fend for themselves.

With Paul previously debilitated, Cage, in one of his more restrained outings, becomes a secondary player to Martell and Jenkins, who aptly carry what little there is to carry in the film. There are obvious lines of drama to explore that go completely unremarked upon, and maybe if Arcadian was a bit more visually interesting this could be somewhat forgiven. But the idea that in this story of a scarcely inhabited planet (despite Paul’s optimism towards some semblance of civilization existing elsewhere), there wouldn’t be more of an exploration of humanity’s survival—focused, perhaps, on the importance of relations between offspring—seems like a missed opportunity for a richer narrative. There’s a plethora of dynamics to potentially unfold between the teens and their parents, but instead we merely get Thomas and Charlotte’s brief flirtation, Joseph’s lack thereof, and Charlotte’s father’s firm disapproval of an innocent kiss. There is no evident interest in the implications of these relationships.

That’s what a lot of Arcadian amounts to: Characters speak to one another and then don’t, scenes happen until the next scene happens, all with hardly anything deeper than getting from point A to point B. Not to mention, these scenes are sometimes completely incomprehensible due to dim cinematography (Frank Mobilio) and scattershot editing (Kristi Shimek). Michael Nilon’s screenplay understands how to craft a passable story, but one which is mostly a skeleton. And there are far too many post-apocalypse movies out there to produce another one which brings hardly anything new to the table other than the admittedly ingenious design of a creature which sounds on paper far more superficially ridiculous than the horror of its execution. Still, the 90-minute film moves at a brisk clip and it’s far from a true slog. Some individual sequences are memorable to boot: Joseph concocts his monster trap by using his own body as bait, with the camera patiently observing the unnatural way the creatures move; at the end of the film, a mass of the creatures conjoin together to create a nightmarish wheel which rolls in pursuit of the teenagers. Arcadian isn’t a time-waster, but its execution is too rote and unimaginative to warrant its existence as another addition to our post-apocalypse glut.

Director: Benjamin Brewer
Writer: Mike Nilon
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Maxwell Jenkins, Jaeden Martell, Sadie Soverall
Release Date: April 12, 2024

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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