A fishing community on a remote Maine island finds itself suddenly cut off from the rest of the world after the ferry stops coming. When people start to vanish, the terrified survivors realize that someone - or something - is hunting them.
May 15th, 2018
Adam Wade McLaughlin
A remote island off the coast of Maine experiences some strange ocean-life phenomenon. And stuck in the middle of this marine mystery is a small community of fishermen, business owners and a marine biologist named Sam (played by Adam Wade McLaughlin), who has seen similar odd occurrences before. Add in a mainland novelist named Titus (Matthew Wilkas) on the island for writing research and Maggie, a temporary island physician played by Laila Robins – and you’ve got quite the snapshot of a varied ensemble. They must work together to face this strange danger, as the power and supplies dwindle. And to further complicate the situation, there is the inexplicable absence of the mainland ferry – for days on end. In other words, there’s no easy way off of the island.
Perhaps it’s the locale of a small Maine village, or that a great majority of Island Zero’s story takes place in a bustling local supermarket – or the biggie – some unknown creatures are trying to get in to kill townsfolk. Yes, the similarities come fast and furious if you’re comparing this film to Stephen King’s The Mist. And while that film was truly terrifying and let’s face it – devastating – Island Zero can tout lots of positive things, but it doesn’t have the power of that Frank Darabont picture.
There were many technical problems in the film. Wishy-washy sound (notably in the film’s short prologue), flat lighting (certainly in many of the daytime scenes) and the very noticeable struggles in the editing department.
The editing felt simultaneously choppy and overly-lengthy. Shots were held too long (the pouring of the coffee – did it need to be that extensive?). And one particular conversational scene drove me nuts with the eye-lines! As Maggie is stitching up an injury to Sam’s arm, the cuts back and forth between them were terribly distracting. Gazes never lined up. And this scene is just a symptom of the film’s larger editing troubles. Had the film seen a smoother edit, I believe many of the other issues would have been easily set aside.
And the odd, multiple shots of the village’s external generators. It’s not as if we saw damage come to them, or something of importance. No, they were just a couple of, almost still-life, shots of the generators making noise. And the shots were held as long as the aforementioned coffee cup. Just odd.
As a writer, I know that it’s tough to properly tackle an ensemble piece. You wanna give each character as much depth and as much nuance as you can. But your page count/run-time is finite. And so you can only offer up so much. Most of it has to go to your central character and their specific journey throughout the film.
The thing is – Island Zero never properly sets up who the central character is. Large cast? Check. Two potential lead characters? Check.
Wait – that’s not the usual, and the film neglects to put complete focus on one or the other. Unless you’re the best screenwriter/storyteller to ever walk the earth, it’s best to put all of your eggs into one basket (so to speak). Early on, it’s somewhat uncertain on who we as the audience should be latching onto. In the end, Sam is basically our central character, but a case could be made for Maggie as well.
It seems a clear misstep that the filmmakers/screenwriters didn’t make Maggie the central character. She’s got the most interesting history, which could never be properly fleshed out, as the focus was all over the place. And once the casting folks had brought Laila Robins on – it was a no-brainer to expand the character (obviously, depending on the timing of the script-writing/casting process). Robins offers a cool, smooth and somewhat mysterious performance as the island’s doctor. She’s calm under pressure, but clearly still has a heart and a sense of humor. Robins is able to provide many emotional layers, for a character which is frankly not written with such depth. Every time Robins delivered a line, I found myself nodding in appreciation. She’s a terrific actress, with an impressive resume (I remember her most for her performance as Steve Martin’s wife in the ‘80s classic, Planes, Trains and Automobiles). She commands the screen. And not to diminish her gifts, but with some of the lesser actors she shared the screen with – it was easy for her to nearly eat them alive.
Holding his own was Adam Wade McLaughlin as Sam. Again, not enough history (even with the stories of Sam’s wife and past), but just not enough time set aside to truly bring us in. He’s got a great moment of emotion later in the film (see my notation below), and you’ll feel for him there – but again, you can’t try to juggle two character journeys in one film.
There were a lot of supporting characters seemingly being played by inexperienced locals. And while you sort of got some of that necessary “local flavor” via their presence, continuous wooden line deliveries don’t quite make for a positive screening experience.
A notable exception in the supporting categories: Anabel Graetz as local fisherman’s wife Ruth. She has plenty of spunk and every time she was on-screen, I knew I’d be entertained.
I had a few questions about just plain old common sense. As genre-buffs, we let a lot slide. That old phrase, “willing suspension of disbelief” is constantly at play in the horror/sci-fi/fantasy realms. So again, let some things go. But I found it utterly bizarre that this island (which clearly had some sort of infrastructure and a decent-sized community) had no mayor, no law enforcement – not even so much as a constable (isn’t that a New England term?) It would have been so easy to offer up these “norms”, and then dispatched with any authority figures early on. Not having them there strained credibility.
Toward the end of the film, the structure really takes a wonky turn. In the middle of two climactic sequences (in the last 15 minutes of the run-time), the film completely stops to offer up two separate “quiet” moments, and some additional exposition. What? No! This information could have been provided much earlier – and not stopped the film dead in its tracks at the most inopportune time.
The creature effects are well done – and smartly so. By making the monsters only appear in certain ways (no spoilers), it offers up plenty of forgiveness for a more grainy/less sophisticated execution of the monster’s design. As for the gore effects, it all looked pretty amateur. It’s passable, but frankly, I saw too many “strings” and “puppet-masters” (not for real, of course… just a turn of phrase).
As is, the film is never overly suspenseful, but also never boring (landing it smack-dab in average territory – thus my 3-star score). A few cuts in the run-time would also have been a welcome change. Again, not boring, but pacing could have been picked up a bit.
There are some interesting ideas in Island Zero. In the hands of a more seasoned filmmaking team and some better actors – the idea could have gone beyond it’s copycat scenario of Peter Benchley’s novel Beast and the aforementioned The Mist – and been something really special. The filmmakers had great locations and a potentially nifty story.
Island Zero is now available on several VOD outlets. Nothing to rush out and see, but if you happen to run across it (say on Netflix – somewhere down the road), it’s worth a look.