Synthesized Terror, by Bob Connally

7 Jul

If you’ve been watching movies and TV for the past decade and a half, then you’ve certainly noticed ’80s nostalgia being a big part (sometimes too big a part) of our pop culture landscape. The most unabashed and probably the most famous example of this has been Stranger Things, the ’80s set kids adventure, sci-fi, horror series that is packed with references to the films and shows of that era. There are numerous ’80s pop hits on the soundtrack and the show’s original score is pure synthwave. 

While Dark Encounter does not feature ’80s music or discussions between characters of that era’s pop culture, it notably does take place in November of 1983, the same month that the first season of Stranger Things is set. Also like Stranger Things, the story is focused on the disappearance of a child and a family’s desperate search for that child and for answers. Unlike Stranger Things, however, there’s a lack of charm and we’re left to wonder what reason writer-director Carl Strathie has for setting Dark Encounter in 1983. The time period somehow simultaneously ends up being both distracting and inconsequential. Strathie could have set the film in the present day, given his characters smartphones, and it would have made little to no difference. If the idea is to evoke the era then it demonstrates that simply setting a spooky sci-fi film in the early ’80s and sliding in a few visual references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn’t really stir up any emotions. If it had, it may have been cheap and lazy but that might have been preferable to not feeling much at all.

Dark Encounter starts somewhat promisingly. One year to the day after the disappearance of young Maisie (Bridget Doherty), the girl’s parents, Olivia (Laura Fraser, A Knight’s Tale) and Ray (Mel Raido) return home from a memorial service for their daughter, though they have not given up on finding her alive. Their son Noah (Spike White), nephew Billy (Sid Phoenix), and other family members gather back at the house along with the town sheriff, Kenneth (Grant Masters), who blames himself. These early scenes display a nice sense of tension between members of the family. It’s not really explained why there is such animosity between Ray and Billy but the details of that aren’t important. It just establishes a good lived-in feel to the family dynamic here. Unfortunately, once the sci-fi aspect of the film kicks in at the start of the second act the characters aren’t developed much beyond what they already are and the atmosphere created by Strathie never quite captures the imagination.

Beyond the atmosphere, the story is not terribly engaging. This is not the sort of movie that needs to reinvent the wheel, it just needs to move forward in a way that keeps the audience locked in and caring about what will happen next to these characters, while also creating a sense of wonder. Or dread. Something. We should care when one of these people mysteriously disappears and we should be hoping for their safe return before the story’s end. Instead we’re just viewing all of this passively, still wondering why this needed to happen in the ’80s.

Dark Encounter is by no means a colossal failure and the cast does good work based on the material they are given but I couldn’t help but compare this to another recent small scale sci-fi period film, The Vast of Night. That’s a film that cleverly uses its 1950s setting in a way that makes the time period a key piece of its story, while also getting the most out of its limited budget. It’s not a revelatory modern masterpiece but The Vast of Night is an entertaining and effective spooky science fiction movie with an engaging story and characters the filmmaker stays interested in past the first act.

Both Dark Encounter and The Vast of Night are currently available on Amazon Prime. The Vast of Night is easy to recommend while Dark Encounter is a disappointment no one should be sad to miss.

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