These days, there seem to be two ways to approach ambitious sci-fi on a small indie film budget. The first is to fully embrace the lack of budget and make the film look as cheap and shoddy as possible via terrible effects work and hammy acting that plays like a spoof of already tongue-in-cheek SyFy Network original movies. The second method is to go lo-fi, eschewing bad CGI spaceships and aliens in favor of a small cast and worlds that look and feel lived-in without trying too hard to layer on “futuristic” set and costume design. Not surprisingly, I prefer the second way of doing things and thankfully, that is how ASSASSINAUT writer/director Drew Bolduc approaches his odd, scruffy, ultimately endearing film.
Set in a semi-distant future where the Earth is ruled by one government, the movie takes place ten years after an alien invasion of the planet ended when the President of Earth (Irene Santiago) ordered a nuclear strike on Washington D.C., mostly wiping out the aliens, but also killing scores of humans in the process. In a publicity stunt to distract people from attempted insurrections by surviving aliens and a small band of humans who sympathize with the invaders, the government decides to send four teenagers to the space station that the President makes her home.
The four teens are Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson), an idealistic true believer in the President who longs for a better life than she currently has with her depressed father; Charlie (Jasmina Parent), an aloof loner who drifts through the pomp and circumstance of the space station visit with bemusement; Tom (Johnathan Newport), a 45-year-old cynic in the body of a thirteen-year-old kid who is included on the visit because his parents are wealthy and influential; and Brooke (Yael Haskal), a scientifically-minded possible genius given to bursts of over-excitement. Shepherding the teens is a surly military type known only as Commander (Vito Trigo) who thinks it’s dangerous and irresponsible for kids with no space exploration experience to just be waltzing around a space station. He’s not exactly wrong.
Sure enough, things go haywire with an attempted assassination of the President and an emergency evacuation of the space station before a bomb can go off. Escape pods are scattered across an alien planet. Our teenage heroes find themselves briefly alone before meeting back up with Commander and together they go on a mission to save the injured President.
Despite the ultra-pulpy plot that feels like a synthesis of such disparate elements as ‘50s alien invasion sci-fi, ‘70s conspiracy paranoia, and modern day young adult genre novels, ASSASSINAUT manages to maintain a remarkably consistent tone that I can only describe as Terrence Malick making an alien/slasher mashup. Grimy industrial interiors give way to the sun-dappled forests and creeks that make up the alien planet that then turn to surreal, almost beautiful shots of eyeball creatures being graphically carved out of the stomach of an unlucky human. Yet, somehow this collision of elements works.
Even when Bolduc abruptly shifts gears midway through the film and pushes it into the camp of a gory, borderline heartless slasher flick, the change in direction does not noticeably change the tone. Much of this credit goes to the impressive, damn near lyrical cinematography of Kunitaro Ohi and the performances of Hutchinson and Parent. Given the least showy roles that easily could have fallen into the stale archetypes of “the leader” and “the mysterious one,” the two young actors deliver likable turns that add some pathos and shading to their characters. These are two young people that have grown up in the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy and continue to fear that it might happen again and Hutchinson and Parent find that mixture of adolescent innocence and the stress of having grown up too fast. The film follows their changes in mood from playful and slightly satirical (befitting a movie that creates a pun for its title) to shocking darkness punctuated by graphic violence.
Bolduc uses his limited budget very well. While there are a couple of performances that point to some actors being semi-amateurs, ASSASSINAUT always feels like a bigger, more polished movie than it is. Part of that comes from the use of grungy industrial locations to double for the interior of the space station. This is no grand, imaginative take on space travel. Instead it is likened to being stuck aboard a cargo ship that has been at sea for several months. It goes a long way to selling the idea that people have been living aboard this vessel for over a decade. This grounded approach also makes it more startling when the film introduces such grotesque sights as the aforementioned “eyeball alien” being removed from a person’s stomach or the rapidly disintegrating creature that stalks the cast once they are stranded on the planet.
Oddly, for a movie that embraces long stretches of just observing characters walking through a forest and foraging food, ASSASSINAUT feels a little rushed at times. While I normally appreciate a movie clocking in at under eighty minutes, it feels at times like there could have been more moments where it was just allowed to breathe. This is especially true with anything related to Commander. His arc is presented as possibly the most tragic one in the film, but his story moves in fits and starts, leading to an abrupt moment that is the only point where the film felt unsatisfying.
As complaints about a film go, wishing for more before the credits roll is far from the worst issue to have. The individual components that make up ASSASSINAUT may make it sound like an unwieldy Frankenstein’s monster of a genre flick, but the film brings together its unusual collection of plot twists into an impressively consistent and ambitious whole. If you have the chance to see it, I highly recommend you do so.
ASSASSINAUT is having its United States premiere this Sunday, March 24 at the Boston Underground Film Festival. You can find all the info, including how to buy tickets, here.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)