Some movies transport you from your dreary, everyday existence into a fascinating world of excitement and wonder. And then there are films like “Zero Contact,” which make you wish you were taking out the cat litter or regrouting the bathroom tiles instead of watching it.
“Zero Contact” stars Sir Anthony Hopkins as Finley Hart, a billionaire technology guru who, at the start of the film, has already died and left his mysterious final project, “The Quantinuum Initiative,” unfinished.
After his death, a group of people directly connected to Finley are summoned to a mysterious video chat, where they are told to input their secret codes and activate the Quantinuum Initiative. It’s a process that should take all of 45 seconds, but they have an hour to do it, because first they have to dump a metric ton of exposition, debate each other’s motives and get picked off by a mysterious killer with digital artifacting where their face should be.
The folks on the call are Finley’s favorite computer hacker Trevor (Aleks Paunovic, “Hawkeye”), Finley’s lawyer Veronica (Veronica Ferres, “Love, Weddings & Other Disasters”), Finley’s tech expert Riku (TJ Kayama), Finley’s executive co-worker Hakan (Martin Stenmark), and Finley’s estranged son Sam (Chris Brochu), who wanted nothing to do with his father and needs everything explained to him in elaborate detail constantly.
The reason why none of these true believers and reasonable skeptics won’t just enter their codes is because they don’t actually know what the Quantinuum Initiative is supposed to do. It might save the world. It might end the world. Then again, not inputting the code might very well end the world too. Maybe it has something to do with spatial anomalies. Maybe time travel is involved. Heck, maybe Finley is still alive.
Anything could be happening, even though technically — for the vast majority of the movie’s runtime — absolutely nothing is. Threats are poorly established and barely explained. Sci-fi concepts are introduced, but it’s unclear how they’re affecting the story, who is manipulating the technology, and what they’re even doing in the first place.
All we know for sure is that “Zero Contact” is a film about five poorly defined characters debating whether or not they should do something that’s also been poorly defined. It’s a lot like the second season of “Lost,” where the characters all debated about whether or not they should “push the button,” except there’s no pretense of entertainment value. It’s only a tedious back and forth.
Meanwhile, Sir Anthony Hopkins occasionally butts into the movie via interview clips where he opines about the difference between science and art and why he doesn’t like labels. If there weren’t a couple shots of Hopkins speaking directly into the camera about the plot of the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking his scenes were completely unrelated to the production and spliced in all willy-nilly.
“Zero Contact” is one of several motion pictures that were produced during the COVID-19 lockdown, when everyone had a lot of time on their hands, but the only way to make a film was online. Rob Savage’s “Host” was an excellent example of how this could work to a filmmaker’s advantage, telling a simple story with sharp characters and thoughtful commentary on the real-life events that led to the film’s distinctive style. Stephanie Laing’s “Family Squares” attempted, earnestly but with somewhat less success, to capture the complexity of maintaining meaningful relationships and sharing major life events when physical proximity was impossible.
“Zero Contact,” the directorial debut of producer Rick Dugdale, written by Cam Cannon (“Deadlock”), makes no direct reference to the pandemic, nor does it have any meaningful thematic ties to it. And while the filmmakers were clearly under no obligation to do so, by ignoring the elephant in the room, “Zero Contact” can’t successfully justify their Zoom-call storytelling gimmick. There’s no narrative reason for this film to be as confined, as stilted, or as amateurish as it is.
And since there’s no good reason to tell a conceptually complicated sci-fi story through a series of talking heads, most of whom can only vaguely allude to the plot they’re trapped in, “Zero Contact” suffers from a deadly case of terminal pointlessness. There’s no reason within the story for the story to be told this way, and so the film can only come across like a hollow gimmick. The pandemic feels like an excuse to make a movie cheaply, not a reason to make a movie, nor a meaningful obstacle to be overcome in order to tell a story that had to be told.
It’s hard to produce a film like “Zero Contact” and carefully manage the cinematography, provided by Edd Lukas (“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase”), so it’s understandable that most of the movie looks like a Zoom call with drab backgrounds and mixed-bag framing. Attempts were reportedly made to incorporate ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) into the audio track, but it’s hard to quantify just how successful that experiment is, except to say that it doesn’t seem to have made the movie more engaging — or, worse, perhaps it did make the movie more engaging, but this is simply as engaging as “Zero Contact” can get.
What does stand out in “Zero Contact” is the score by Anders Niska and Klas Wahl, but not because it tells the story very well. Instead, it creates an incessant filter between the audience and the film, so that every moment in the narrative has to fight its way to the audience through a hazy aural mishmash of non-specific tension. It’s as though Niska and Wahl knew that, for the most of the movie, nothing was happening, and that when things did happen they were deeply confusing, and the best they could do was perpetually suggest a generic sense of portent.
And then of course there’s Hopkins, who adds a heck of a lot of respectability to these proceedings. He would have added a heck of a lot more if he’d actually interacted with any of the other actors, but instead he seems to have been invited to shoot his entire part like a series of cameos, to be added into the movie later when it needed a boost in personality. Hopkins can’t help but elevate the film whenever he’s on screen, but he’s given so little to do, and such claptrap to say, that it doesn’t make much of a difference in the long run.
There’s no denying that the production of a film like “Zero Contact” was complicated and that everyone involved is at least trying to make lemonade out of lemons. But when all is said and done, the lemonade doesn’t taste good. It’s a film full of boring conversations, daft sci-fi conceits, and confusing suspense, which add up to practically nothing. “Zero” indeed.
“Zero Contact” opens in US theaters and on demand May 27.