Film Review: SomnusChris Reading’s attempt at a lower-budget space thriller suffers as much from its lack of originality as it does from its weak cast and script.
The history of movies about space travel can be traced all the way back to the dawn of cinema and Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon, but the science-fiction sub-genre has become even more popular in recent years with hits like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Ridley Scott’s The Martian.
Somnus, the feature film debut by director Chris Reading, doesn’t have the budget of those other movies, but why would it, when it makes it so blatantly obvious that Reading has watched 2001: A Space Odyssey one too many times for his own good?
After a quizzical opening set in 1952 England, serving very little purpose and never explained, we shift forward 300 years to the crew of a cargo ship traveling through space, where the ship’s commander, Harry Emerson (Marcus McMahon), and his younger co-pilot, Charles Finch (Cullum Austin), are having a lovely bit of chit-chat. The ship’s onboard computer Meryl (voiced by Meryl Griffiths) has found its own confidante in the ship’s engineer Rupert (Rohit Gokani), who starts to get the feeling that maybe Meryl may have homicidal feelings towards the crew.
The viewer already knows this, having seen Meryl kill another crewmember named Paula, who is only introduced as we watch her writing hand as she dies. It’s one of Somnus’ most immediate problems, that the characters are never properly introduced in a way that makes you particularly interested in them, and if you’re not invested in a movie’s characters, why should you care what happens to them?
It’s hard to fault a filmmaker whose elaborate ideas go far beyond his allocated budget, but it’s obvious Reading doesn’t have the skills to piece those ideas together in a cohesive way. He saves money by spending much of the film’s budget designing the interiors of the spacecraft, where most of the film’s first hour takes place, as it cuts between the crew having conversations and random Malick-like images of space and nature, accompanied by lush synthesizer tracks—the soundtrack being one of the film’s few saving graces. Having a stronger script or a clearer vision of how to tell a story would have done wonders.
After a couple of deaths, the ship and its surviving crew are dispatched to the nearby colony planet of Somnus, where one of them is seemingly picked off by an unseen alien creature, and they meet a couple of colonists who have clearly gone mad from being on their own. (The planet’s woodsy environment allows Reading to save even more money by having his actors running around a forest in spacesuits.) At this point, everything else about the spaceship and the homicidal Meryl is set aside and seemingly forgotten until the film’s last few minutes, but this new trajectory for the movie doesn’t do much to help matters.
It’s obvious few of Reading’s cast are particularly experienced or skilled enough to elevate his script (co-written by Russell Owen) beyond it feeling like a weaker episode of a BBC sci-fi show. Stuck with lackluster dialogue throughout, McMahon at least delivers a solid enough performance to save the film’s ending.
Even compared to another recent British space thriller, Approaching the Unknown—which at least had the talented Mark Strong leading it—Somnus is just a snooze, and Reading’s lack of originality kills any goodwill this low-budget space thriller might have garnered.
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