Film Review: Atomica

This sci-fi suspense thriller produced by SyFy would look better than average on television, but in a theatrical environment its low-budget effects and small cast put it at a disadvantage.
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When the communication systems at a nuclear-waste storage facility/power plant in the middle of a poisonously irradiated desert fail abruptly, technician Abby Dixon (Sarah Habel) is flown in to find and fix the problem ASAP—it's such a rush that she starts work on Christmas Day, for heaven's sake. Though, to be fair, the facility—owned and operated by mega-corporation Auxilisun (to all appearances kissing-cousin to Alien's Weyland-Yutani), which has had a monopoly on the world's power supply since a nuclear disaster in the early 21st century united the planet under a one oppressive super-government—is providing power for a sizeable chunk of the Southern hemisphere. In any event, Abby is under a great deal of pressure, though apparently her mission isn't sufficiently high-priority for her to have a team.

That said, the facility itself is a two-man operation–a high-strung fellow named Robinson (Dominic Monaghan) and the world-famous Dr. Zekt (Tom Sizemore) —and Zekt, Abby learns shortly after arrival, has gone missing. It's hard not to think Ausilisun runs a pretty loose ship out there in the desert…unless there's a more sinister explanation. Could the facility's problems be the result of terrorism? Corporate sabotage? Aging cabin fever? Abby is a company girl, but even she quickly comes to suspect that she's not in possession of all the pertinent facts, and that she's being kept in the dark deliberately.

It's hard to figure the upside of releasing Atomica—originally titled Deep Burial, which makes sense once the facility's purpose is explained but was probably changed when someone realized the title could be perceived as a promise of zombies or underground monsters that are not forthcoming—in theatres. It looks pretty good on a smallish screen, so perhaps it looked just good enough that someone thought its production values were a hair better than they actually are. The film's production design and relationships come straight from the Alien playbook, which isn't inherently a bad thing, since Alien is the gold-standard model for claustrophobic, character-driven science fiction set in a future full of boring jobs, rundown facilities and indifferent off-site bosses.

Habel (currently playing not-your-father's Miss Grundy on “Riverdale,” The CW's revisionist "Archie" series) and Monaghan deliver admirably serious performances and Monaghan is particularly good as Robinson, who may or may not be crazy as a bedbug—that balance is much easier to flub than nail, especially absent the luxury of a big-budget shooting schedule. None of which means that Atomica is the new Alien—it's not. But it's better that it needed to be and suggests that director Dagen Merrill (Beneath) and writers Kevin Burke, Fred Fernandez-Armesto and Adam Gyngell are worth keeping an eye on.

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