TV’s hottest show right now is The Last of Us, a sci-fi drama — based on a Sony PlayStation game — about a heartbroken dad and an orphaned girl traversing a dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape. Sony’s latest theatrical release is 65, a sci-fi drama about a heartbroken dad and an orphaned girl traversing a dangerous prehistoric landscape, and it feels like it should’ve been a video game.
65 ★★ (2/4 stars)
This isn’t the damning criticism that it might have been a generation ago, as games have become a versatile and robust storytelling form over the past two decades. However, some stories and story structures play to the strengths of one medium more than another. 65 is an efficient and workmanlike example of the “survival horror” genre, which might not be native to video games but has certainly thrived there. Like The Last of Us, which is descended from survival horror games, 65 follows a pair of characters on a journey from A to B, confronting a variety of nasty creatures along the way. Adam Driver plays Mills, the player character, if you will, a space freighter pilot who is trying to get the vulnerable survivor of their crashed vessel to an escape pod on the other side of a valley full of dangerous wildlife. The gimmick is that the strange alien planet that Mills and the young survivor Koa (Ariana Greenblatt) have crashed on is Earth, 65 million years ago, and the strange beasties in their way are dinosaurs.
Plenty of movies have simple, “get to the checkpoint” type plots, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, John Carpenter’s mastery of linear objective cinema is considered to be a key influence on video game storytelling. What makes 65 feel game-like has more to do with what it doesn’t have. Mills’ tragic backstory is delivered to us mostly in the opening minutes of the film, before the inciting spaceship crash. Everything you need to know about him — essentially, everything you’d need to play the character — is there from the beginning. His goals and needs do not change, they merely intensify along with the stakes. We learn only a single new piece of information about him over the course of the film, and the rest of the texture is added through recorded messages from Mills’ beloved daughter (Chloe Coleman). It’s reminiscent of how many games dispense plot or character material via new messages from supporting characters collected during gameplay. Again, none of this is criminal, but the level of character simplicity that sustains a video-game player character makes for thin viewing here.
Mills and Koa don’t share a common language, which means the film has limited dialogue. The most important character communication is conveyed through acts of service, helping each other to stay alive. Movies don’t need to rely on dialogue to convey or advance character (or Sergio Leone wouldn’t have been able to make Clint Eastwood a star), but Driver and Greenblatt’s performances aren’t interesting enough to breathe life into their underwritten characters. Their bond is built on facing challenges together, just as in video-game play.
Where the video-game influence works in 65’s favor is in its environmental storytelling. Writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (who wrote A Quiet Place) let the production design by Kevin Ishioka (Avatar, Tron: Legacy) do a lot of the work establishing the dangers of the prehistoric jungle as well as the futuristic technology of the alien castaways. The occasional piece of expository dialogue from Mills’ computer assistant feels unnecessary, as the extraterrestrial sets and props have already provided the information we need. (For instance, we know Mills’ rifle is running out of ammunition because there are fewer lights on the barrel than there were when he loaded it.) As for the dinosaurs, no explanation is necessary whatsoever. The audience actually enters the theater with more knowledge of the hazards of the Cretaceous Period than the characters do, but they get the picture quickly enough: Big bugs, big lizards, big trouble.
Also to its credit, 65 does not overstay its welcome, coming in at a brisk 93 minutes. There are no superfluous subplots or teases at long term world building. Beck and Woods do not appear to have franchise ambitions here, which is, frankly, refreshing from a studio genre film in the year 2023. 65 is essentially a big-budget version of a simple, made-for-streaming creature feature, nothing more and nothing less. Or, to return to our video game metaphor, it’s an old-school, linear single-player campaign, designed to be played through once before spending the bulk of your time in online multiplayer or horde mode. It wouldn’t be the sort of game you’d play and think, “They should make this into a movie.” Instead, I found myself wishing that 65 had been released in the early 2000s, when every studio feature was guaranteed a video game adaptation. I have no interest in seeing 65 a second time. I would, however, be interested in playing it.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.