Written by Katherine Murray.
ARQ, Tony Elliott’s new Netflix movie, delivers about what you’d expect from a writer for Orphan Black. The characters are thrown into an adrenaline-fueled, confusing, science-fiction quest from scene one. They don’t have time to make anything more than impulsive decisions, there’s a plot twist every time they think they know what’s going on, and every double-cross turns out to be a double-double-double cross instead. The story doesn’t always make sense, but it’s a wild ride that holds your interest from beginning to end.
The protagonist is a man named Renton (Robbie Amell) who invented a powerful generator called the ARQ (pronounced “ark”). There’s a fragmented back story about how he stole the ARQ from the evil corporation he used to work for, in a dystopian future where power and food are both hard to come by. The ARQ could be the difference between winning and losing a war between the corporation and a rebel army called the Block, but Renton’s concerned about some anomalous readings it’s giving off. Just as Renton’s house is stormed by Block members who want to steal the ARQ, the ARQ creates a three-hour time loop, trapping Renton and his attackers inside. Renton is the only one who remembers what happened in previous loops; he needs to figure out how to survive, protect the ARQ, and reconcile with his mysterious, newly-returned partner, Hannah (Rachael Taylor).
I have some questions about how the time loop works in ARQ, which I won’t ask here, because they would spoil some of the surprises in the latter half of the film, but, suffice to say, the rules get more complicated as they go, and the complications don’t always make sense.
What I do need to spoil a little bit is Renton’s relationship with Hannah, because the way it plays out isn’t especially thoughtful. At the start of the film, Hannah’s sleeping beside him, just before the Block bursts in, and we later learn that she tracked him down only the night before, after a long absence that began when she was arrested by the corporation. She has an agenda of her own that’s revealed as the movie goes on. But she’s mostly an ally to Renton and – to be completely frank about it – something else he has to carry through this situation, so that it isn’t too easy for him.
Early in the film, Renton is the only one who remembers the time loops and he literally leads Hannah through the house by the hand to evade the Block – this pretty much makes sense, because he knows what’s around each corner and she doesn’t. Later in the film, Hannah starts to remember the time loops as well but, for some reason, this doesn’t change the dynamic where she follows his lead on every single decision – even when they have contradictory goals. On the one hand, Renton is the best chance she has of ending the time loop and anything she does will be for nothing as long as the day keeps resetting, so it makes sense to cooperate with him. On the other hand, Hannah’s primary function in the story is to be an extra person that can die, thereby preventing Renton from stopping the time loop, because he wants to find a solution where both of them live.
It’s a little bit reminiscent of Edge of Tomorrow, except that Emily Blunt’s character was a lot more active in that movie, and the writers got mileage out of the idea that the one person who could remember what was happening was also least suited to do anything about it. In ARQ, it seems like Renton would be better off on his own and Hannah exists to be an extra obstacle that slows him down.
There’s also a love triangle in the story that’s more of a line with a dot beside it. Or a symbol like x_x. In the time Hannah’s been away from Renton, she’s changed a lot, due to some rough experiences, and fallen in love with someone else. That person, happily, is also trapped in the time loop and keeps getting killed. After the first time it happens, Hannah hardly bats an eye at that or at the idea that she and Renton should end the time loop anyway, as long as they both survive. Taken to its natural extreme, this could have been an interesting idea – if Renton keeps resetting the loop because he loves Hannah, and Hannah loves this other person, and this other person loves someone else… on and on until he has to find three hours where nobody in the entire world dies. Unfortunately, the story has a laser focus on what Renton wants, and Renton only wants Hannah to survive. It’s actually better for him if her partner doesn’t make it.
ARQ isn’t a bad movie, and it fits within the Netflix wheelhouse in that it’s so addictive you won’t want to stop once you’ve started. It does suffer from the same kind of emptiness beneath Orphan Black. Once you strip out all the plot twists, there isn’t much of a message underneath and the characters mostly seem motivated to make the story work. The film also doesn’t seem like it reflects on the situation very much, beyond trying to build a framework for more double-crosses and plot twists.
Still, if you’re hungry for more Orphan Black, because you miss feeling confused and enthralled, ARQ is worth checking out.