Not all science fiction films need to be big budget affairs to be successful. Often, science fiction is used as a framework to tell smaller stories. At its heart, writer/director Glenn Payne’s Earthrise (2014) is a “desert island” style mystery/suspense film set in space. In it, tensions rise amongst a small group of space travelers during their journey from Mars to Earth. While the low budget does make itself evident in the quality of the sets and special effects, the filmmakers manage to use them effectively. The focus here is on the characters and not the gadgetry. Payne does an excellent job using non-linear storytelling to build tension with his small cast. Unfortunately, the film stumbles in the final act, and this tension is ill served by a lackluster resolution to the central mystery.
In the world of Earthrise, the vast majority of humanity is living in domes on Mars after an unnamed cataclysm has rendered Earth uninhabitable. For the past 360 years, the Revive Corporation has been sending select citizens to Earth to work on planet reclamation. It is considered a great honor, and only a select few of those that pass an exam upon reaching the age of 30 are chosen to go each year. The film follows Dawn (Meaghin Burke), Vivian (Casey Dillard), and Marshall (Greg Earnest), this year’s work crew, as they undertake their seven day journey from Mars to Earth aboard a mostly automated spacecraft. As the trip proceeds, the isolation and close proximity began to wear on the crew’s nerves. Video messages from past Revive Corporation workers hint that things may not be going as smoothly as expected on Earth add to the strain on the crew. Tensions rise and conflicts inevitably occur. Are the workers’ visions of loved ones (and of other things) stress-induced hallucinations or is something more sinister going on?
Shooting a space-based science fiction film on a small budget can be tricky, but Earthrise makes good use of its meager resources. While it does have a decidedly low-tech look to its sets, directory Payne and cinematographer Michael Williams shoot them in such a way to give a sense of scale to the ship. You can feel how the confined spaces of the corridors are equally as oppressive to the characters as the cavernous and darkened cargo hold. The few select exterior shots of the ship are not bad, considering the budget. Nobody would mistake the low-budget CGI space shots for something from a Hollywood blockbuster, but they do their job well and are there primarily for establishing the setting and the timeline of the journey and not as special effects set pieces. There is also a nice bit of practical work done at one point where a crew member is stalked by a giant spider that may or may not really be there. In the less-is-more sequence, only the giant legs of the spider coming around the corner and close-up shots of the spider’s face are used to great effect. The old-school Star Trek: TOS style shake-the-camera turbulence effect when the ship is rocked by meteors is a bit less effective, but it manages to add to the film’s indie charm.
One of the highlights of the film is writer/director Payne’s uses of non-linear storytelling to disorient the viewers and to help them understand the psychological strain on the crew. The action is divided into three distinct time period: pre-launch crew interviews; early voyage, when things are going smoothly; and late voyage, when tensions amongst the crew are building and coming to a head. The film jumps around between these segments, with rarely two adjacent scenes being from the same segment. While the pre-flight interviews are easy to identify, the viewer is left to their own to determine the sequence of the early and late journey scenes, adding to the sense of unease. Instead of using title cards or overlays to indicate when in the trip scenes are occurring, Payne trusts the viewer to pick up timing hints, such as the location and severity of the crew’s injuries or their general level of dishevelment. As the story jumps around in time, the viewer is given clues as to the backstories of the crew members as well as to the nature of the overall mystery. Each scene builds on the previous ones, providing an increasingly complete picture of events and motivations. The overall effect is a steady buildup of suspense, and it keeps the viewer fully engaged. Eventually, the early and late journey portions of the story are linked by a key scene in a very satisfying way.
The success of a mystery/thriller ultimately depends upon how satisfied one is with the resolution of the central mystery. Granted, there are plenty of successful thrillers with ambiguous endings. The issue comes when a film does try to neatly wrap up its central mystery, but that resolution underwhelms. Unfortunately, while Earthrise is suspenseful and does an excellent job building tension as the film goes on, the ultimate truth revealed is rather mundane. There are hints of a large conspiracy throughout the film, but these are never addressed. It is not so much that the question of the conspiracy is intentionally left open or even that it was a red herring, but that it feels more like it is simply forgotten by the filmmakers. There is one nice character moment related to the resolution of the mystery, but the reveal is otherwise inconsequential. Upon reflecting on it though, perhaps that small character moment was the overall point of the filmmakers. Even so, it still felt like something is lacking in the end.
Earthrise is a good example of character-centered science fiction on a budget. It does not need high tech sets or effects to tell its story. Instead, writer/director Ryan uses non-linear storytelling to great effect in building suspense. He trusts his audience to piece together the clues without handholding. Unfortunately, in the end, the mystery itself is a bit of a letdown. Perhaps the idea is that “not all mysteries need be grand to have an impact on an individual,” but it still feels like a slight stumble at the finish line.
Earthrise (2.8 / 5)