Science fiction stories, especially in film and television, can often set up a sci-fi scenario only to put it almost entirely to the side (making a case for why such a scenario would be used at all). Atomica, directed by Dagen Merrill, is a sci fi thriller that focuses perhas more on the 'thriller' part than the sci-fi, but is solid and engaging in its execution, creating its suspense through character conflict, rather than the sci-fi scenrario in which the story is placed.
In this not-so-distant future, a company has created technology to utilize nuclear radiation as an energy source, all but eliminating the need for other sources. When the first of these energy plants seems to have stopped functioning properly, a safety inspector, Abby Dixon (Sarah Habel), travels to the plant to fix it. She finds Robinson (Dominic Monaghan), the plant's mechanic and one of its two occupants, now alone, behaving strangely and with a crazy story as to what happened to the resident scientist Zek (Tom Sizemore).
Those expecting a lot of big explosions or big action might be disappointed; while there are these moments, Merill and screenwriters Federico Fernandez-Armesto and Adam Gyngell eschew much of the action for a more claustraphic (literal and figurative) thriller. The huge underground bunker, properly minimalist, utilitarian and labrynthian, is frightening in both its scope (one could easily get lost, never to be found), and the myriad of traps Dixon finds herself in, with little room for escape. Merill does well moving between the large space, where the echoes of emptiness suggest something monstrous, and tight spaces where the humans are faced with their own monstrousness.
Dixon is our gateway into this world, and a good facsimile for a well-off, intelligent person who thinks she knows how the world works; she knows her job, but is willing to adapt to her environment (at least what she thinks her environment might be); her devotion to the corporate ideal starts off as absolute, but that starts to crack as she is caught in the web of both Robinson's and Zek's lies and misdirection.
As noted, the overall premise (what has gone wrong at this power plant that could threaten both the company and those who use its service) becomes a little lost; instead, the film becomes a power play between Dixon and Robinson (and later Zek). The film excels in the scenes between the two. Monaghan has become very adept at playing a particular kind of crazy/unhinged man: just charming enough that you don't want to doubt his sincerity, but creepy enough to keep you on your guard; his long chatter rants, whether spoken as written or perhaps partially improvised, draw you in like he's on some mad version of The Moth. Habel more than holds her own in their scenes together, which make for the best part of the film., making it much more of a character study than an action piece. Which is great, and missing in too many contemporary sci-fi films.
When the truth starts to be revealed, the script begins to unravel a bit. It starts out with a very well-acted scene of cat-and-mouse between Robinson and Zek (with Dixon caught in the middle); but once it comes around to the sci-fi premise, that seems almost an afterthought; the action is fine and tense, but the dialogue gets a bit cliched and uninteresting, especially considering how good it had been in previous scenes. It is as though the sci-fi angle was forgotten in the process, leaving the ending a bit anti-climactic. As well, one of the things I liked about the film was that the gender of the characters was irrelevant; except for one scene, when Dixon's gender is emphasized in the possible danger posed by Robinson; it is possible for a man to be dangerous without it being sexualized, and the danger could have been suggested another way.
Atomica doesn't utilize its sci-fi premise to its best strength, but the creepy, taut atmosphere and solid central performances make for an interesting and enjoyable thriller.
Atomica opens in select theatres on March 17th and on VOD/Digital HD on March 21st, via SyFy Films.