'ARQ': Film Review | TIFF 2016
The inventor of a time-travel machine dies and is reborn time and again in an effort to perfect his escape plan and still get the girl.
A Groundhog Day scenario in which the hero's not the only one who learns he's in a time loop, Tony Elliott's ARQ pits the (accidental) inventor of a time machine against multiple players who want to steal it before they even know what it does. Following soon after Elliot's writing work on Orphan Black, this low-budget offering has some built-in fanboy appeal; but its knottily plotted action is involving enough to attract sci-fi fans with no knowledge of Elliott's small-screen credits.
Despite being set in a possibly endless loop, the film wastes no time, starting off as Renton (Robbie Amell) awakens from what he thinks is a nightmare, only to be kidnapped by three men wearing gas masks. Soon the woman sleeping beside him is taken also; they're bound and threatened; Renton tries to escape; he's killed. And then he wakes up, remembering everything that just happened, and tries again.
Early scenes play like Edge of Tomorrow, with Renton using lessons learned in one iteration — about both his captors and the long-lost lover, Hannah (Rachael Taylor of Jessica Jones), he was just reunited with — in an effort to win his freedom the next time around. Suffice to say that multiple characters aren't what they seem to be, some having confused allegiances to the two factions — a tyrannical megacorp called Torus; a rebellion known as The Block — waging war in the near-apocalyptic world outside Renton's bunker-like home. Renton, who (perhaps unwillingly) once worked for Torus, has invented what may be a perpetual-motion machine, the ARQ, which has shorted out and is causing the same three hours or so to repeat ad infinitum.
That would seem to be good news for Renton, who can enjoy infinite reboots until getting it right. (A power the makers of Superman adaptations sadly don't have.) But before he can get the best of his captors, one of them starts realizing time is looping as well. After a few more rounds — things are getting complicated now — another villain gains the same awareness.
Elliott's screenplay rides a fine edge of viewer involvement: As we mentally plot out what Renton can do better each time around, Elliott throws another wrinkle our way. Then we're trying to predict how the wrinkles will compound, and how they might be avoided. In the midst of all this, Renton seems less interested in survival than he is in reestablishing his increasingly complicated relationship with Hannah, the love of his life.
Right around the time we start to worry that this infinite-loop business might be getting old, the film goes off the rails, having tossed in so many complications we give up the prediction game and just watch. Amazingly, given how many time-travel pix collapse in a tangle of logic around this point, ARQ knows how to wrap its paradoxes up in a way we can hardly criticize.
Production company: Lost City
Cast: Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor, Gray Powell, Jacob Neayem, Shaun Benson, Adam Butcher
Director-Screenwriter: Tony Elliott
Producers: Kyle Franke, Mason Novick, John Finemore
Executive producers: James Hoppe, Nick Spicer, Ian Bricke, Matt Levin
Director of photography: Daniel Grant
Production designer: Oleg M. Savytski
Costume designer: Patrick Antosh
Editor: Kye Meechan
Composers: Keegan Jessamy, Bryce Mitchell
Casting director: Angela Demo
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)