Arcadian’s shocking aliens can’t fix its criminal Nicolas Cage shortage

Inside all of us are two wolves. This is true for everyone except Nicolas Cage. Inside Nicolas Cage are two Nicolas Cages: the somber, dialed-down Nic Cage of Pig and Leaving Las Vegas, and the screaming, manic Nic Cage of Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man, and Mom and Dad. Which one wins? The one he decides fits a given role, sometimes regardless of the movie around him. (I will never stop wondering why calm, internal, straight-faced Nicolas Cage showed up for the otherwise nutballs supernatural action movie Drive Angry.)

In Benjamin Brewer’s small-scale alien-apocalypse movie Arcadian, quiet grown-up Nic Cage once again turns up for a movie that could have used a little more off-kilter energy. But for once, the movie’s central issue isn’t which Nic Cage came to set, it’s how much he got to come to set. “Nicolas Cage tries to raise teenagers at the end of the world” has potential as a premise, even if it doesn’t sound radically innovative. Arcadian sidelines Cage too often, though, and finds nothing as appealing or energetic to replace him with.

Image: IFC Films

As the movie opens, Cage’s character, Paul, flees a city that’s disintegrating as unseen forces attack. The crisis is suggested mostly with sound cues and striking images of abandoned streets and a smoking skyline. The approach suggests a project on the order of Skyline — a low-budget but high-concept disaster movie with an ambitious visual design raising it above its small-scale origins. Immediately after that, though, Paul retreats to the countryside, where he finds a set of infant twins lying on a small mattress in a junk-filled space. The sequence is so shorthanded that it feels like Brewer and screenwriter Michael Nilon are deliberately obscuring the details for a later big reveal that never comes.

It isn’t clear where Paul is when he finds the babies, how he determines their guardians are gone, or whether he has any relationship to either of the children or the place where he finds them. It’s simplest to guess that he stumbled across both by accident, and that the infants were hidden by parents who then died in the attack. But it’s shot and edited in such a confusing way that you could just as easily assume Paul came across a farm and killed the owners to take their land, then was chagrined to find they had children. Or that he was returning to his family home and was shocked to learn someone was caching infants on his property. It’s the first time Arcadian glibly skips over what seems like important world-building and character-building context, but it’s far from the last. (Notably, we never learn a thing about Paul — who he was or where he came from.)

Fifteen years after the opening scene, Paul is eking out a life on a farm with the now half-grown boys, Joseph (Jaeden Martell, of the It movies and Knives Out) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins, from Netflix’s Lost in Space). Paul is a stern but frustratingly distant father figure who seems to be reaching the limits of his authority for the first time, as Thomas neglects his chores in order to run to a neighboring farm, where he’s pursuing a tentative flirtation with local farm girl Charlotte (Saltburn’s Sadie Soverall). Joseph, meanwhile, has become a tinkerer, with dreams of fighting the invaders with handmade tech — a dream made urgently real when the enemy makes an aggressive push to take the farmhouse down.

Paul (Nicolas Cage) and 15-year-old twins Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) and Joseph (Jaeden Martell) sit at the dinner table in a bleak, dark room in Arcadian Image: IFC Films

Much of Arcadian plays out like a mashup of the excellent Bill Paxton thriller Frailty and the more recent A Quiet Place, with the caveat that the mysterious invaders aren’t offended by noise — they seem to just be offended by humanity in general. One brief line of dialogue surfaces a theory that the attackers were sent to clean up Earth’s environment by radically reducing the human population, but it’s clear this is just a guess from survivors looking for meaning in their situation — one of Arcadian’s better, subtler nods to how people handle helplessness and trauma. For the most part, the attackers are alien, and chillingly unknowable.

They’re also the strongest asset for a movie that falls back on rote tropes, and keeps glossing over chances to make its story more distinctive. As Thomas’ rebellion becomes more and more dangerous, both for him and for his small family, it seems like a chance for vast interpersonal tension. Paul and Joseph both respond by retreating from the conflict, leaving large chunks of Arcadian curiously slack. The film has one remarkably sweet scene between Charlotte and Thomas as they fumble through inventing flirtation in a world where they lack media input or role models to mimic. But Thomas’ relationship with the other two leads never comes into focus. And without enough human drama to sustain it, Arcadian has to fall back on human-versus-inhuman conflict instead.

Joseph (Jaeden Martell) stands outdoors at night, soaked in blood and looking grim, in Arcadian Image: IFC Films

There are some standout moments in that battle — one mesmerizing, nearly silent extended shot is guaranteed to have audiences outright shrieking in theaters. Too much of Arcadian’s monster-stalking and home-invasion action is familiar from similar recent creature-feature movies, from A Quiet Place and its sequel to Bird Box and its sequel to No One Will Save You. But the creature design is unnerving, alarming, and unpredictable. Viewers who remember nothing else about this movie a week after watching it will certainly remember the eerie way its antagonists travel, or how they signal they’re ready to attack. Their appearance alone makes the film worth a horror buff’s time.

Once the action really gets underway, though, Cage is largely absent, and muddy spatial relationships and confusing, hard-to-see action take a significant percentage of the power out of what should be an explosive final act. And once the film settles into a fairly standard chase-and-fight movie, its lack of more character depth or nuance, or more compelling relationships between the protagonists, limits what the filmmakers can do to make this story stand out from all the past projects it echoes. Arcadian does a few things remarkably well for a sci-fi/horror movie, but it needed a lot more to really spark: more commitment to its vaguely realized setting, more energy between the two very different brothers at its center, and above all, more Nicolas Cage — either version of him.

Arcadian premieres in theaters on April 12.

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