Sunday, December 3, 2023

Before Earth


Written and directed by Scott Beck and Brian Woods

Spoilers: moderate

To start off with something nice, though if this is the nicest thing I'm going to say about it then that bodes ill for this review's chances of being remotely positive, I am earnestly glad they still make shit like 65, a dumb B-movie about aliens accidentally arriving on Earth in the Cretaceous Period and fighting dinosaurs, which would not only not have been out of place, but probably would have been better, if it had come out in the mid-1960s.  Apparently, I'm not so glad that I actually went to see it in theaters, back when it came out this summer.  So I admit I'm part of the problem.

It's hard to regret this, exactly, except in some ideological sense where I regret not supporting an original mid-budget genre movie, just not this particular original mid-budget genre movie; but as someone who's marveled at modern Hollywood's willingness to permit Universal Pictures and their Jurassic World franchise to effectively "own" the concept of humans meeting dinosaurs, despite that concept being uncopyrightable, and dinosaurs themselves being completely outside the realm of protected IP altogether (notwithstanding some exceptions in some of Universal Pictures' lousy fucking Jurassic World movies, anyhow), I've always felt that a good half-dozen movies like 65 should've come out over the past decade.  Imaginative knock-offery used to be how popular fads and fascinating genre movements got madedisaster cinema, Jaws clones, slasher flicksand while Jaws clones have made a respectable stealth comeback, and everybody and their mom has tried their hand over the past decade at superheroic shared universes, I guess the latter sucked up all the resources, because the demonstrable appeal of dino-destructiona legacy going back to the silent erahas gone practically untapped.  At best it's been ceded to low-budget houses incapable of doing it justice (with, I'd bet, a tendency toward the kind of bad-on-purpose irony that overtly declares you're wasting your time on a movie, and which usually makes my skin crawl).  So the mere existence of 65 brings a weary smile to my face.  It didn't do so well (it probably wasn't even profitable) that dinosaur movies are likely to be the new thing, and, like I said, I regret that in some vague philosophical way.  But it probably had something to do with how this dinosaur movie is barely about fucking dinosaurs, and when it is, it isn't very good at it.  Meanwhile, when it's not about dinosaurs, it's not good at that, either.

We have, as you can see, left the "nice" portion of the review.  It is well to admit that one of the reasons I didn't see 65 in theaters (the main reason is the large number of people who came out expressing confusion as to how this movie could be not just bad, but boring) is that it was already pretty obvious that virtually every single decision that went into its manufacture was the diametric opposite of the decision I'd have made for it in its creators' place.  This is borne out beyond my worst fears in the movie, like it exists solely to annoy me, and make writing a review that isn't just rewriting the screenplay from scratch difficult.  It's ultimately about the execution of its ideas, but it is hard not to be sour about a movie when you feel, deep in your brain's heart, that every one of those ideas was wrong in the first place, from the very basic conviction that time travel would be a cleaner and more relatable premise for the "humans meet dinosaurs" scenario than the ancient astronauts that the movie actually uses.  This continues, right on down, into almost literally all the constituent details that make up the movie, like how all these years after Jurassic Park and despite all of the complaints about the old-fashioned iconography that the 1993 film locked its franchise into, this film's designers haven't seen fit to exploit any of the enormous strides that visual paleontology has made since then, not even for the most superficial reasons of differentiating itself from its competitors; or like how the movie starts off with a whole cargo hold full of potential victims in the form of thirty-odd cryonically-suspended starship passengers, all but one of whom die in the crash, rather than in a dinosaur's mouth; or like how, thanks to that almost unthinkably-bad idea, it becomes an escort mission, obliging the single adult survivor, Mills (Adam Driver), to protect the single surviving passenger, little girl Koa (Ariana Greenblatt), which means that credible stakes are going to be harder to achieve now that this popcorn horror movie can't kill anybody for at least another hour; or like how Koa speaks only the language of "the northern territories" and not Space English, placing a significant communication barrier between her and her protector, that you yourself have probably realized, from first principles, is only going to overcomplicate things even if its directorial duo managed to do it well; or like how (I could keep going, but I'll wrap this "sentence" up) the movie gets so anxious to get out in front of any confusion about its premise that it resolves it immediately within the first ten seconds, making it tediously clear right upfront that these futuristic human-looking starfarers are aliens and that the "alien" planet we haven't even seen yet will be prehistoric Earth.  It does this to the extent that the film's title card, when it drops, somewhat insists that the full title of the movie is actually 65 Million Years Ago a Visitor Crash Landed On Earth.

And I realize one "knows" that that's the movie going into it, and it's not a "twist"I am not asking for Planet of the Apesbut presumably half the fun of a movie like 65 is the writing exercise of building a sense of mystery and dawning discovery into it.  And that's just absent.  The other reason I didn't watch it in theaters was because its marketing heavily relied on "from the writers of A Quiet Place" as a selling point (and I'm a little embarrassed on their behalf that I assumed from watching the movie they made that this was Scott Beck and Brian Woods's directorial debut, but it's not even close).  It is not ever as flamboyantly stupid as A Quiet Placethis is a low bar, as A Quiet Place is one of the worst major horror movies of the 21st centurythough I guess it indicates that Beck and Woods have a real appreciation for the writes-itself qualities of stories about stoic-yet-kind survivalist men shepherding inexperienced-but-resourceful girls around a sci-fi nightmare hellscape without the latter being able to vocalize words.

That is kind of our "summary" gotten out of the waythe important omission is that Mills (our alien hero, Mills) had a daughter back home, who existed in service of providing the film the minimum required character embroidery so that it doesn't completely feel like the unplayable video game version of itself, though I suppose it's an open question whether 65 actually rises to the level of the unplayable video game version of itself.  This character arc, or whatever, is an additional reason to be so annoyed with how blaringly loud the movie is off the bat with the "HEY, GUYS, IT'S EARTH! WOW! 65 MILLION YEARS, BRO!" stuff, insofar as it does see fit to "withhold" vital character information about this kid (Chloe Coleman) in a way that makes it seem like Beck and Woods actually do think they're twisting something out on you when they finally tell you she died.  (Would've been an interesting thing for Mills and Koa to talk about, huh?  Well, I said I'd take the movie as it exists, so let's instead say it would have made the various suggestions of suicidal ideation that attend Millsfor about two scenesa little more high-impact, if we'd received this information as quickly in the movie itself as we do the information that the film is set on Earth in the Cretaceous.)  Anyway, the other omission I made is that Mills and Koa don't just have 65 million years to sit around: they need to find the escape pod, separated from the crashed ship by several miles, becausenot in 100,000 years, not in 1 yearin no less than 48 hours, Earth is scheduled for its predestined meeting with Chicxulub Object that smashed into what is now Mexico, obliterated half a continent outright, turned the entire planet's atmosphere into a blazing oven for up to half an hour, and killed nearly every single living thing on land too big to hide in something insulating, like a burrow or lake or cave.  Incidentally, large theropod dinosaurs live in caves in this movie.  Whatever.

None of this is fatal, really (why, I'd probably complain about feeling cheated if they didn't arrive at the exact moment of the K-Pg Boundary, or if the movie didn't close with the dino-apocalypse; I might complain less now if the film's final gesture, a dissolve-lapse across 65 million years of the landscape, wasn't so dismally thoughtless and perfunctory, and had any suspicion that 65 million years is a pretty long time for a mountain range to maintain the exact same silhouette).  But still, very little of this is appreciably good: I always say that I don't think a performance can be "too good" for a movie, but that's probably not what we have here anyway, since Driver is acting "too hard" in pursuit of his dead-daughter dad-sads, too out-of-step with the B-movie nonsense this fundamentally is.  (There is a beat, extremely late in the movie, that I guess I won't spoil though it made me cackle out loud and it's the difference between "this is a bad, boring movie" and "this is a horrid movie," where in the midst of a duel with a t-rex Driver is obliged to bang the drum of his grief one more Goddamn time, and it doesn't even feel plausible; the exact trigger for it comes in the middle of what should be "atavistic terror," which is something that neither lead really bothers with for the whole movie but let's leave that aside, and it just doesn't feel right to switch gears like this on the basis of an event so atrociously gauche that even the saddest dad would probably have to laugh at the dignity-free absurdity of it; it is anyway, the only way the scene could be played and work, and deploying it to drag what appears to be an attempt at emotional catharsis out of material that could only be dark whimsy leaves it probably the single most misjudged thing I've seen in a movie all year.)

Otherwise, Driver is adequate, sort of, at least in the sense that he is a large, fit man.  As for Greenblatt, nobody wants to slag on a child actor, but Beck and Woods did not make it easy for her, starting with a stray line from Driver in a report where he guesses she's 9, and, yeah, they're aliens, maybe their years are longer, dude, but Greenblatt wasn't 9, she was 13 and while you probably wouldn't even notice this in a speaking role, her physical carriage is that of a markedly older kid (there's a slightly smug "knowing look" she offers Driver at one point that is unmistakably that of a younger teen), whereas the character herself is largely written and directed as an actual baby.  The irrationally-imposed linguistic barrier hurts both their performances very badly: Beck and Woods "invented" about eight words of a "language," which she practically never speaks, instead tending to mindlessly repeat Space English words, and at no point does this ever feel like two people who speak two different languages, trying to suss out each other's lexicon, rather than just a semi-feral child who speaks no language and the guy who found her one day in a swamp.  They do get to have a few neat interactions, at least, like a bit where she insists Mills put a flower in his hair, and the film's single best moment, by some margin, involves how a little girl tasked with securing a rope would go about that with apparently zero experience tying knots, which made me laugh because I secretly knew I couldn't have done any better.

That the movie about the dinosaurs' best momentby far!involves suboptimal knot-tying does not say great things about how competently it's about dinosaurs, and it's honestly a little hard to understand why 65 has the shape it does, viz. dinosaurs: it feels like a screenplay that was built around four or five major dinosaur setpieces, so that Driver with a flower garland and suchlike would be cute little interstitial bits that enrich a film that's mostly about setpieces, and then somebody said they were too expensive and all of the setpieces except the ending were ripped out, leaving a movie mostly about just trudging through what is fairly obviously Quaternary Louisiana.  (The CGI is good for $45 million, which means it's bad, but I have no desire to criticize it.)

Now, of course there is still action, often action that is way less fraught than it should be (carrying around a Space Gun and Space Grenades to deal with animals will do that, though, and yet, with one salutary exception in the finale, it's also far less gratifyingly gory than serious weaponry should have allowed for; remarkably, the gore isn't even effected by the weaponry, and it's also extremely confusing).  Its action kicks off with a theropod, or saurischian, or whateverhold onabout the size of a large cat jumping on Driver, which is somewhat hard to take seriously from the animal's perspective, and is a pretty terrible way to introduce the threat.  The film manages dino-violence regularly enough, yet it never feels like you're witnessing an actual scene of it; the closest it comes outside the finale is when they get stuck in a cave by a tyrannosaur, which happens to be occupied by another theropod that the design strongly implies to be an albinic species of underground dwellers, and...  I mentioned up top it's not good at dinosaurs, which is true on the merits, but also just in terms of most of its dinosaurs being, identifiably, dinosaurs.  There's a pack of quadrupedal predators, such as I don't even know actually existed in the Cretaceous, and they're just wretched creations in any caseI would be on board for (what I think would be) purely-speculative carnivorous ceratopsians, but there's no character to these designs at all.  These fellows look like the prompt was "what if the demon dogs from Ghostbusters were patterned on greyhounds instead?", and that probably doesn't even sound that bad, but neither these reptile dogs, nor anything else, ever feels like it's been designed or staged to make them even slightly frightening, or memorable, and the best Becks and Woods ever manage is a t-rex looming out of falling water and darkness, illuminated by lightning, i.e., basically-the-shot-from-I-think-maybe-literally-every-Jurassic-Park-movie, but-at-least-two.  The rest of the action is tiresome; very few things feel like a real threat; and I'd venture that it's edited poorly, in some hard-to-define way that I might be able to define better if the movie were even modestly investing.  And a movie about people getting chased around by dinosaurs not being scary, or at least interesting?  That is fatal.

Score: 4/10


  1. I read through your review and kept thinking to myself "yeah that rings a bell" but this movie just slid right off my brain. So boring. I can't even remember parts of the ending that you allude to, really, though I'll ask my friend Mr. W. Pedia.

    Adam Driver Grunting and Shooting Ugly Lizard Dogs: The Movie

    I'm 100% with you, though, that Hollywood should churn out more dumb dinosaur movies. Dinosaurs are awesome! Me and my 4 year old agree on this!

    1. (Spoilers) Oh, personally, I think I'll remember Adam Driver weeping while a t-rex "eats" a hologram of his dead daughter for a long, long time.

      The kind of dinosaur movies I want to see the most would not necessarily be appropriate for a 4 year old, but, yeah, that's the thing; there should be numerous options.