While science fiction can explore galaxies far, far away and offer interstellar spectacles, it is often most challenging when it stays close to home and investigates what makes us human. This month’s selection of overlooked sci-fi streaming movies takes a particular interest in our bodies, ourselves, but don’t worry, the laser battles will come back soon.
‘Infinitum: Subject Unknown’
This British movie’s title gives an inkling of the premise: Yep, this is another entry in the crowded time-loop subgenre, but with a couple of intriguing twists. The first is that we know from the beginning that the main character, Jane (Tori Butler-Hart, who co-wrote the screenplay with her director husband, Matthew) keeps waking up tied up in an empty attic room, is the subject of a scientific experiment, so for once we are aware of how the loop came to be and, generally, its purpose. Another is that Jane moves about a deserted world, which means that there are none of the repeated encounters that usually make this type of movie so entertaining. The film was made in lockdown last year, but the Butler-Harts cleverly baked their constraints into both a minimalist style (the amount of dialogue would probably fit on three pages) and the plot itself: Other people would impact the experiment’s data, so let’s just not have them.
Behind Jane’s ordeal are a pair of researchers played by Conleth Hill (Lord Varys on “Game of Thrones”) and Ian McKellen (who figures prominently in the credits and trailer but has a limited screen presence). This is Butler-Hart’s show from beginning to end to beginning.
Another solitary woman is at the heart of this sophisticated French production, and her circumstances are dire: She is jolted awake in a cryogenic pod, having no idea who or where she is. With the help of a disembodied A.I. who goes by M.I.L.O., for Medical Interface Liaison Officer (voiced by art-house favorite Mathieu Amalric), she quickly deduces that her name is Liz Hansen. The rest of the movie essentially consists of Liz, portrayed by Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) in a tour-de-force performance, sleuthing her way through her circumstances while remaining flat on her back in the tiny pod. “Oxygen,” named for Liz’s dwindling supply, essentially is a (mostly) single-set detective movie. The director Alexandre Aja — successfully stepping away from the horror genre he has been associated with since “High Tension” in 2003 — has the technical virtuosity to deliver action in a confined environment, but he also puts his skill in the service of earned emotion. Typical is a vertiginous shot involving Laurent’s eye — saying more would be a spoiler — that manages to be simultaneously awe-inspiring and poetic.
This film from the genre specialist Blumhouse Productions offers a more conventional take on amnesia and the search for one’s identity than “Oxygen” and, at least at first glance, it’s also more relatable than the story of a woman waking up from cryogenic sleep — after all, what befalls Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) feels all too conceivable in 2021 America. Following a devastating car crash that left him a widower, he struggles to look after his young daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine, terrific in the usually grating role of a precocious child). Nolan has issues remembering the simplest tasks, like when to pick up Ava from school, and overall he just does not feel like himself — and he’s not even sure who or what that would be anyway. Desperate to get to the bottom of things, he engages in a series of unorthodox memory-retrieval sessions with Dr. Brooks (Phylicia Rashad). Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., “Black Box” does not deviate from the general guidelines governing the “doctor going rogue” subgenre, but it is an efficient vehicle toying with huge questions of consciousness and ethics. Bonus: the terrifying shots of a disarticulated man crawling upside down on all fours, because Blumhouse is going to Blumhouse.
When an epidemic strikes Argentina, Augusto (Agustín Rittano) and Laura (Jazmín Stuart) get into their motor home and flee Buenos Aires for what they hope is a safe refuge in the remote countryside. What is going on — “the disease,” “this thing that’s happening now” — is never explained. The problem seems to be a type of insomnia that leads to a total breakdown in technology (cell service is spotty, ATMs are down) and of the social contract. The premise is similar to the one of “Awake,” but “Toxic” is a lot artier than that woeful Netflix effort. The director Ariel Martínez Herrera turns Augusto and Laura’s journey (in their funky vehicle and its comically huge interior) into a surreal road trip full of quirky scenes that seemingly go nowhere yet are oddly satisfying, including the couple’s encounters with a series of oddball characters. Many aspects of the movie — like people wearing masks and fearing contact with others — are familiar in our Covid-19 world, but production on “Toxic” started years ago. You could say these preoccupations are in the 21st-century air. Herrera, though, is not particularly interested in ringing alarm bells or terrifying viewers, à la “Contagion.” What he has made instead, with a sure sense for composition and color, is a sweet-tempered tone poem for the apocalypse.
‘The Honeymoon Phase’
Tom (Jim Schubin) and Eve (Chloe Carroll) are young, attractive and in love. They think they can make an easy $50,000 by signing up for a monthlong study in which they’d be locked, under constant video surveillance, in a self-sufficient home. Things go swimmingly at first — how could they not when booze and food magically appear and the apartment comes with a snazzy turntable (cue music montage)? In only a few days, however, Eve starts feeling something is amiss. Is she being paranoid or discerning? Could Tom himself be behind her discomfort? The film obviously nods to “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining,” but it is not on that heightened level (and the score, packed with melodramatic flourishes, is distractingly bad). Yet Phillip G. Carroll Jr., who wrote, directed and edited “The Honeymoon Phase,” sets up enough twists and turns to keep us guessing not just about Eve’s fate, but the film’s main themes — the story looks like it’s heading a specific way at first, then makes hairpin turns. This can induce whiplash, but Carroll Jr. does keep us on edge.