Verdict: Intelligent SF drama that will leave you wanting for more
Netflix is fast becoming a contender in the production of quality SFF. Last year we saw the release of JESSICA JONES and DAREDEVIL, superhero dramas that reimagined the Marvel method. This year we had STRANGER THINGS; if you haven’t seen that, you really should. What with the news that ALTERED CARBON is getting the Netflix treatment, it looks as though the service is advancing down the SFF route.
ARQ continues the pattern of high-quality SF, with excellent production values and a compelling storyline.
In the future, scientist Robbie Amell has created a device called the “Arq”: a machine capable of generating its own energy, and thereby creating a timeloop. That function might be secondary, but when his former partner Rachael Taylor comes back into his life it becomes crucial to the events that unfold. Amell’s lab is invaded by resistance fighters (some of whom are not all that they seem), and the pair become trapped in a timeloop: reliving the same few hours in the same building, endlessly trying to escape from their captors.
On paper, it sounds neither original nor sufficient to fill an hour and a half, but those assumptions are far from reality. The premise of looping has become something of an SF trope – LOOPER and EDGE OF TOMORROW instantly come to mind. It’s become popular to apply the GROUNDHOG DAY treatment to an SF setting, but what ARQ proves is that when its done right it works very well. The decision to ground the events of the film within a single building (often within a single room!) is genius: we are able to concentrate both on the characters’ unfolding states of knowledge, and to appreciate the horror of the Arq technology. As I mentioned earlier, at first it seems the premise won’t be enough to support the film’s runtime, but ARQ manages this very well. In fact, by the end of the film you’ll be left wanting more: like the best SF, ARQ doesn’t answer every question.
The cast is about as lean as the story. In the hands of a less able director, or with a weaker crew, this might’ve been problematic. But once more, ARQ turns that on its head. Although Amell and Taylor are the stars here, the rest of the cast is almost as good. I’d even argue that he tight focus on the limited number of characters becomes necessary once we plunge into the repeated time loops generated by the Arq.
But what is SF without a wider setting? ARQ hints at a wider background, without smothering the viewer with it. It’s set in an extreme corporate future, with a backdrop of war between the corporation and the resistance (which becomes more relevant as the loop progresses). As with the best background building, sometimes you have to focus on the little details to understand what’s going on outside the lab. There are news reports of something (nuclear?) happening to Australia, as well as the imprisonment of religious leadership. ARQ’s setting feels very much like a 1980s corporate dystopia; managing to create the wider backdrop for the events that take place in the lab without forcing it.
Overall, ARQ is an intelligent SF drama that shows you sometimes don’t need a huge cast to get the job done. It’s well produced, well acted and well thought out – I’d highly recommend that if you subscribe to Netflix you give it a watch.