Director: Tony Elliott
Cast: Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor
Watch ARQ online in the UK: Netflix
The good news? You’ve invented a machine that produces infinite free energy. The bad news? Some people want to get hold of it. People with weapons. The really bad news? Your machine also causes time to repeat in a loop. Which means those people with weapons will keep coming after you over and over again.
That’s the basic premise behind Netflix’s new original sci-fi thriller, ARQ – and writer-director Tony Elliott throws us straight into it, as we see Renton (Amell) and Hannah (Taylor) wake up in his lab, only to have the door broken down by sinister goons seconds later. The pace doesn’t let up from there. It’s only a few more seconds before the door is broken down a second time. And a third.
Things progress swiftly, as Renton gradually works out how to avoid each obstacle and get one step further to freedom. Of course, that’s the exact same reason why the masked intruders want it – they are, we discover, working for a resistance against the world’s new overlord, TORUS. If they have the ARQ on their side, they figure they can fight the sinister organisation over and over again, until they learn to win.
So far, so standard. Evil company? Check. Dystopian future? Check. Clever use of repetition? Check. This is Groundhog Day with guns. Edge of Tomorrow without Emily Blunt. And that’s enjoyable in its own right, with the editing smartly using visual shorthand to shepherd us back and forward through the timey-wimey maze.
Robbie Amell is charismatic enough in the lead, with Rachael Taylor, just as she did in Jessica Jones, impressing as a kick-ass female sidekick who kicks far more ass than convention would usually allow. They can’t quite rescue some of the ropey dialogue, though – “There’s a war on! I don’t have time for us!” yells one, as tensions fray – and it becomes clear that this indie Edge of Tomorrow is missing some of that blockbuster’s amusing wit as well as Blunt.
But Elliot, who has history on Orphan Black, is smart enough to make the most of his resources. The stripped-down budget becomes a claustrophobic, three-room set; the fleeting use of effects makes the flashes of tech all the more convincing; and the script turns the endless cycle of events into something mind-bogglingly gripping. Every time the clock resets, Elliot unearths another twist, leaving us unsure whose side any of our ensemble are on. By the end of the first act, it’s not just Renton suffering from deja vu – and suddenly, each plot point feels open to manipulation.
It’s a simple evolution of the time-loop genre, but it gives rise to wonderfully complex digressions and detours, as details from early on are recalled and reworked to rewarding effect. Every act you expect to see repeated is never guaranteed to reappear, as the screenplay races ahead of itself to undo what’s going to happen. The result is that rare thing; a story that’s thrillingly unpredictable. Heck, you might even watch it again once you’ve finished.
ARQ is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.