Fantasia 2015: ‘Extinction’ is a clumsy melodrama

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Extinction
Written by Miguel Ángel Vivas and Alberto Marini
Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas
Spain/Hungary, 2015

Some films just can’t stick to their strengths. There are some good jump scares inside Extinction, the post-apocalyptic zombie film from Spanish director Miguel Ángel Vivas, adapted from a novel by his countrymen Juan de Dios Garduño, but Vivas (who co-wrote the script with Alberto Marini) is too keen to turn his film into a melodrama to focus on the fright. The result is a plodding zombie drama with too much tonal inconsistency to succeed as either a character study or a terrifying gorefest.

In fact, a majority of the scares are in the prelude, which at least serves the function of getting Extinction off to a promising start. In a frenetic sequences dominated by handheld shots and dizzyingly quick cuts, Vivas gives the audience a hint of the world which defines his movie: it’s dark and full of terrors (and zombies). Although the sequence is often too kinetic to give a clear sense of what’s happening, it does introduce us to Jack (Jeffrey Donovan) and Patrick (Matthew Fox), their hometown of Harmony, and the gruesome flesh-eaters who terrorize it. The lack of visual clarity in the scene is a bit frustrating, but it also amps up the terror by leaving viewers to guess what exactly is going on. Regardless, the basic gist of the sequence is clear: crazed mutants are eating people who are nearly helpless to resist.

Flash forward nine years, and the zombies appear to have mostly succeeded in their task. Winter has come for good (last Game of Thrones reference, I promise), and the snowy landscape of Harmony now seems to be solely inhabited by Patrick and Jack, who are next-door neighbours, as well as Jack’s daughter Lu (Quinn McColgan), who lives with him. Despite the proximity of the two men, they’re quite disconnected from one another, as we’re told through the redundant cross-cutting between shots of each of them living their separate lives. Patrick grows out a beard and succumbs to alcoholism while Jack teaches his daughter to survive, and nothing in the cross-cut sequences reveals much else about either character, despite the abundance of these scenes.

As frustrating as the repetition is, what seems intended as the film’s emotional lynchpin is hindered by the opposite problem: a lack of information about the conflict. We learn through flashbacks that the men are emotionally distant from one another due to a love triangle over Emma (Valeria Verau), a woman they both loved (who’s shown briefly in the prelude, but not for long enough to reveal anything of note about her). Who is Emma? What’s the progression of her relationships with the two men? Why should the audience care about any of this? Answers to these questions are hinted at through the flashbacks, but none of them are definitive enough to warrant the gravitas Vivas applies to the squabble.

At least she’s more interesting than the film’s other adult female character (Clara Lago), who’s not introduced until the third act, and listed in the credits solely as “Woman.” Although sole concentration on her femininity (at the expense of revealing anything else about her) feels retrograde, it does at least make sense given her role in the film, since all that Patrick and Jack seem to value about her is her fertile womb. They get to do all of the cool zombie killing and world-saving, and they know that their actions will have some consequence, since Woman will be there to repopulate the earth. Of course, she’ll need some help to do so, and one can only assume that Patrick and Jack will be happy to oblige, regardless of her thoughts on the topic. Then again, Extinction doesn’t seem to care much about what Woman thinks either, since she’s not even deemed important enough to have a name. 

Despite the abhorent misogyny in her character, she still doesn’t undermine the movie quite as much as the flat relationship between the two men. Vivas wants us to invest ourselves in them, but then doesn’t tell us enough about either (or their relationship) to guarantee a return on the investment. Luckily, the flat emotions don’t wholly undermine the jump scares, which Vivas does show a formidable ability to craft, but there simply aren’t enough of them to hold the viewer’s attention, which quickly faces its own kind of extinction. Accordingly, Extinction becomes a shallow melodrama in need of an emotional hook.




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