Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A couple people go to a vaguely-defined zone in a vaguely defined post-apocalyptic future, perform some kind of vaguely-defined scientific studies, and start to go slightly batty in vaguely defined ways. It’s a scenario we’ve seen in a few too many sci-fi movies, and occasionally, it works: The recent Annihilation perhaps offers one example of how creative filmmaking and clever character dynamics can enliven these mysterious, minimalist setups.
And then there’s They Remain, a low-budget sci-fi thriller written and directed by Philip Gelatt, who also wrote the not-terrible sci-fi flick Europa Report some years ago. Here, the characters doing the field studies are Keith (William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), who work for a corporation — vaguely defined, of course — as they examine a lush, green area of rolling hills and dense forests. The wildlife has reportedly been acting weird, which may be related to the fact that these were once the stomping grounds of a cult which came to a bad end. (Do movie cults ever not come to bad ends?)
It’s hard to tell how much of Keith and Jessica’s research actually relates to the cult, because we’re never really told exactly what these two are doing — or even really who they are. They may have once had a relationship, which might account for the snippiness of their dialogue. Does it even matter? The whole story, such as it is, seems to exist on the level of metaphor, but even metaphors need some definition and weight to keep us interested.
Keith and Jessica often work apart from each other, and the film is at its best when exploiting the creeping dread of their solitude in an unfamiliar setting. Gelatt shoots forests and fields in such a way that you’re always watching for one of the shadows in the background to suddenly start moving. As a result, They Remain sometimes works as a simple atmospheric thriller — and had Gelatt been willing to go full genre with his material and keep ratcheting up the suspense, that may have been enough.
Instead, he seems to have other ideas. The sexual tension between Keith and Jessica starts to build, suggesting that whatever once possessed the cult might be possessing them. (Keith has goofy dreams filled with hippies, boobs, and knives.) And could there have been more massacres here in the past? The notion of an elemental, buried evil – the kind of idea that H.P. Lovecraft and Nigel Kneale spent their entire careers mining — can be captivating, firing our imaginations. But Gelatt’s plotting is impoverished; neither the characters nor the story are allowed to develop. Instead, the film settles for even more vagueness: Will they or won’t they? becomes Did they or didn’t they? Occasional flashes of supposedly creepy visions and dream sequences come off not as steps forward in the film’s dramatic progression but as cheap filler, serving to dissipate the tension.
William Jackson Harper is one of the more promising actors working today. Most viewers will recognize him as Chidi on NBC’s excellent The Good Place; a couple of years ago, I saw him in a not-very-good Sundance film, How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, in which he handily acted everyone else right off the screen. He has that rare ability to save himself from subpar material, in part because he brings an innate likability and reserve to his characters; you sometimes wonder if he’s as befuddled by what’s happening around him as the viewer is. He brings some of that charm to Keith, but it’s not really enough to keep us watching. But at least he gets some things to do. The same can’t be said for Henderson, whose character seems to exist in this film mostly to stand around looking pissed. They Remain wants to unsettle us and invade our brains. Instead, what little power it has vanishes long before the credits roll. What remains is tedium.
Directed by Philip Gelatt
Opens March 2, Village East Cinema