Netflix’s original science fiction film ARQ (2016) lacks a novel premise and doesn’t have much of a budget, but it does have confidence, energy, and subtly integrated SF world-building. Warning: this review will “spoil” its very familiar structural premise, so for those of you who like to go in without expectations: ARQ is inessential but clever and pretty entertaining. For the rest of you, read on!
Ren (Robbie Amell) is an engineer who used to work for a massive worldwide corporation called Torus. He awakens one morning with old flame Hannah (Rachael Taylor) in bed beside him, but the calm tableau doesn’t last: a trio of violent thugs break into his safehouse searching for money and food. In the resulting struggle, Ren “dies”—only to wake up in bed, at the same time, with Hannah again beside him. That’s right, he’s caught in a time loop, one that seems to be connected to the perpetual motion energy machine in his garage: the “ARQ,” which he developed during his Torus days before fleeing the conflicts of the wider world to his current hideout. Ren faces off against the intruders, cycling through multiple ill-fated iterations of trying to outwit them and save himself. But as further layers of intrigue are revealed, the game board keeps changing, and the survival strategies become more fraught and desperate.
Written and directed by Orphan Black veteran Tony Elliott, ARQ feels recycled: it’s yet another variation on the Groundhog Day concept, slotting into the canon alongside Edge of Tomorrow, Time Lapse, the 12 Monkeys episode “Lullaby,” and probably more that I’m missing. Mashing that concept together with a Desperate Hours home invasion makes for a film that inspires more than its share of deja vu—which is fitting, when you think about it. That said, it’s a skillfully executed take on the idea, thanks to a well structured script, convincingly frenetic performances from Amell and Taylor, and best of all, immersive and thoughtful dystopian world-building. As ARQ hurdles through its expected structural obstacles, it also gradually layers in the details of a grim, skiffy backdrop, ultimately painting a vivid picture of a corporate-owned, ecologically collapsing future. It may not be the most original SF film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a diverting dystopian thriller that neatly ties its premise to a theme of hopeful persistence.