Review: SOLITARY, Mostly Satisfying Sci-Fi Thrills on a Micro-Budget
Written, directed, and produced by visual effects artist-turned-filmmaker Luke Armstrong, the aptly named Solitary, is a self-contained science-fiction/thriller set in an over-familiar futuristic dystopia.
Out-of-control climate change, overpopulation, and dwindling resources lead nominally democratic Western governments to make radical, life-altering decisions for their citizens (specifically prisoners facing life sentences). It almost begs to be evaluated on a gentle, forgiving curve, primarily due to its micro-budgeted origins, an intriguing premise that began life as a five-minute short, and a single set or set Armstrong and his small band of dedicated collaborators fully exploit to create a sporadically engrossing, occasionally entertaining diversion.
When we first meet Issac Havelock (actor-producer Johnny Sachon), he’s waking up from a bad dream straight into a dread-inducing nightmare. He’s stuck on a space pod high above the earth with only Alana Still (Lottie Tolhurst), a fellow inmate forcibly volunteered into sacrificing her life for the common good (i.e., space colonization), and the pod’s oddly discomfiting shipboard AI, Eva (Kathryn Vinclaire), for company for however long their basic supplies (e.g., food, water, air).
Apparently, the explosion that destroyed the space station and, of course, their temporary home before more permanent accommodations on a colony-bound ship could be found, knocked Issac briefly out, and left him with a mild case of amnesia. This amnesia conveniently allows Issac to ask a seemingly never-ending stream of questions both for himself and more importantly, for the audience.
Issac’s early amnesia functions as a Screenwriting 101 plot device that Solitary probably didn’t need, and combined with a series of earthbound flashbacks that all too gradually reveal Issac’s backstory, too often halting whatever little forward-moving momentum Solitary gains through a combination of revelations, twists, and turns. Too much expository padding, especially during an overlong, slightly bloated second act, adds to a growing sense that Armstrong is working toward a predefined running time rather than allowing his story to grow and develop organically regardless of length. It’s only when, thanks to a deliberately withheld character reveal and the space pod’s rapidly decaying orbit moves back into the foreground, Solitary reaches the last half-hour with more than enough narrative momentum for two or three science-fiction thrillers combined.
Not surprisingly, Armstrong leans hard on his cast to fill in the spaces and blanks present in the screenplay. Both Sachon and Tolhurst deliver believable pro-level performances. Given that Sachon and Tolhurst have to act and react to each other in a confined, drab physical space and, on occasion, Eva or the disembodied voices of their ground control contact, a news channel that somehow gets the pod’s number, and Issac’s left-behind girlfriend, they acquit themselves relatively well. While the space pod doesn’t make for a visually engaging set, Armstrong smartly relying on years as a visual effects supervisor, uses cutaways to the external shots of the space pod, the space station pre- and post-explosion, and borderline spectacular shots of the Earth from outer space and its immediate environs.
For Armstrong, Solitary will work best as a test or sizzle reel for future efforts as a writer-director rather than a standalone film judged on its own merits. A stronger premise, a better-structured screenplay, and a bigger budget will ultimately give interested audiences a true measure of Armstrong’s skills and talents as a filmmaker.
Solitary will be available on VOD and Blu-Ray/DVD on August 31, 2020.