How do you pick the movie you’re going to watch? Some viewers are well-versed in cinema, and when they step up to the ticket booth, they will declare in a clear and confident tone, “One for Fast and the Furious 14: The Spawning, please,” thereby earning the admiration of their peers.
My wife and I undergo a complicated dance, not unlike a hostage negotiation. A few dozen titles will be proposed, rejected, re-examined, and eventually, a winner staggers out of the carnage, just in time for us to look at each other and say, “Is it too late to even watch a movie?” It all depends on a desire for variety, mood at the time, and the phases of the moon.
However, I was horrified to learn that some people base their film-watching decisions solely on the title. That, my friends, is absolute madness. I suppose if you had a movie with a particularly evocative title, such as The Silence of the Lambs or Die Hard, you’d have pretty good odds rolling the dice. The right title provides a glimpse into the plot and tone. Can you go wrong blindly picking a movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark? Of course not.
But what if your movie has a lousy title? Is that an indicator of its quality? For example, let’s take a brief look at some of the direct-to-video films made recently by Bruce Willis and Nicolas Cage. A few of the films they have made in the last decade are:
- A Day to Die
- Out of Death
- Jui Jitsu
- A Score to Settle
Are all of those movies terrible? I have no idea, but sweet baby Jesus, they sound terrible. That was the conundrum I was faced with, and with a heavy sigh, I sat down to watch Broken Darkness, a post-apocalyptic thriller better than the generic title it was saddled with.
In the not-so-distant future, Earth is unlucky enough to pass through the tail of a comet. As so often happens, our precious and fragile blue marble is bombarded with meteor strikes. It’s also hit with some kind of interstellar fungus that, as so often happens, transforms the recipients into bloodthirsty undead ghouls.
In the macro view, Earth had its ass kicked. In the micro view, Sam (Sean Cameron Michael) also had his ass kicked. While fleeing for shelter during the cataclysm, some gun-toting dipstick accidentally shoots and kills Sam’s son. He then has to spend the next eight years living in Kentucky Station, a settlement amidst a warren of underground tunnels. His job is to handle the increasing repairs of the crumbling machinery while nursing his years-long trauma. At least he has his marginally more optimistic buddy Troy (Brandon Auret) for company.
Then, Rose (Suraya Santos) shows up. She’s arrived from Winnipeg Station alone and is searching for a purpose. When she asks Sam and Troy for some on the job training, Sam tells her to take a hike. He won’t be rid of her that easily, as they are assigned to travel to Winnipeg Station to help get the settlement up and running and trade supplies.
Do things go smoothly for our heroes, and they usher in a new age of peace and prosperity? They do not. A ragtag band of Rangers is waiting for them, fighting a rearguard action against hordes of the aforementioned bloodthirsty undead ghouls. Up on the surface, life isn’t much better with the added menace of cannibalistic bandits. In the midst of all this madness, will Sam find a way to live again and be the father figure Rose needs? Well, duh.
All snark aside, Broken Darkness (God, what a bad title) is a pretty good little independent film. Filmed in South Africa, I suspect that director Christopher-Lee dos Santos found himself with access to underground tunnels, and chose to craft a film around his ready-made environment. His action scenes are smooth, and he gives us glimpses into how these characters have managed to survive under the shattered Earth. My only real issue is the film’s tone. For the first half spent in the subterranean passages, dos Santos gives us a jittery quasi-horror/action hybrid. Once the characters emerge on the surface, the film transforms into a meditative drama not unlike The Road, where the characters mourn what they have lost and try to find some measure of peace. The tonal transition feels too abrupt, and it’s as if dos Santos decided to make a different movie midway through production.
Christopher-Lee dos Santos did double-duty as the director and screenwriter for Broken Darkness (I can’t get behind that title), and his script is solid when it comes to characterization and less so with genre elements. We learn about who Sam is naturally, and while the revelations about him are hardly earth-shattering, they don’t need to be. He feels like a regular and relatable guy thrown into an irregular situation, just like Rose feels like a young woman trying to navigate what the new normal is. Our protagonists aren’t former Special Forces operatives or anything like that, simply normal people. Having said that, Sam is also the only character with anything approaching a backstory. We don’t need lengthy flashbacks to show the past lives of everyone else, but more perceptive writing could have told us more about who these people are.
As far as the genre elements, that’s where we run into a minor problem and a major problem. The minor problem is the “been-there-done-that” feeling with the cannibal gangs and zombie critters. I’ve seen that stuff numerous times, and there’s nothing here to indicate it’s presented in a new or interesting way. Speaking of “been-there-done-that,” can we please press pause on scenes of attempted rape in movies? Yes, I’m aware if society crumbled, a troubling amount of men would use that as a starting gun. I’m also not accusing dos Santos of being a misogynist. Instead, like me, I think he’s a dude who doesn’t have to live with what women experience.* In film, sexual violence is frequently used as shorthand to increase tension. It’s lazy, and it serves to dilute the impact of such an act. Sometimes the portrayal of sexual assault is necessary for a movie. It shouldn’t be commonplace.
The cast does honest and competent work, which I appreciated. Instead of well-worn post-apocalyptic archetypes like The Sad Killing Machine and The Quipmaster, we’ve got people. Sean Cameron Mitchell plays Sam as an understandably closed-off man. He’s quietly capable and quietly mourning his losses as the world falls apart. He’s got subtle chemistry with Suraya Santos as Rose, who takes a thinly drawn character and injects it with pathos. I also need to mention Jonathan Pienaar, who shows up in a few scenes as a bandit leader. Pienaar plays him as a smooth-talking Irish sharpie. It’s as if he’s a charismatic old alley cat who could just as easily rub against your leg as claw the hell out of you.
Broken Darkness (Please, no more with this awful title) is a fairly decent little film. Despite suffering from some tonal deficiencies, Christopher-Lee dos Santos has made a movie about people coming together after the end of the world. I’d like to see more of his work. Next time, though? Can we get someone else in charge of the title?
*A little research tells me that one in six American women have experienced at least an attempted rape in their lifetime. Since so many go unreported, I’m sure the real numbers are far higher.