A meteorite strikes a small town in Pennsylvania, making the air toxic and killing everyone in the vicinity. A short while later, the dead who were closest to the meteorite when it landed start coming back to life. To figure out what’s going on, the man leading the investigation, Colonel Emmerich (Jack Campbell), calls in Lauren Stone (Nicole Schalmo), a Nobel Prize-winning exobiologist who’s as troubled as she is brilliant. When the people who came back to life are drawn toward a gigantic tree that’s quickly grown at the site of the meteorite crash, it becomes clear something extraterrestrial has arrived on Earth, leaving Lauren to determine why it came here and what it wants before it’s too late.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Risen, the third feature by Australian writer and director Eddie Arya. The premise is intriguing and there’s a final act revelation that not only explains many of the questions raised earlier in the film but also puts a unique spin on the familiar aliens-attack-Earth sci-fi narrative. However, Risen is so poorly executed, any interest or suspense that might otherwise be generated by the story is lost to the film’s plodding pace, subpar visual effects, and shoddy construction.
This isn’t helped by the terrible dialogue, which both over-explains anything that’s the least bit technical and under-explains just about everything else. Meanwhile, although both Campbell and Kenneth Trujillo — as David Santiago, another scientist called in to examine the meteorite crash with Lauren — are given just enough material to inject a little humanity into the proceedings, most of the actors aren’t so lucky. This is especially true for Schalmo, who gives a practically somnambulant performance as Lauren, a character created in the tiresome mold of pop-culture anti-heroes whose substance abuse is mistaken for complexity. Yet, in a movie where a shocking amount of the action consists of people staring at something off-screen, it seems Lauren’s muted demeanor is a feature, not a bug.
Given all this, when Risen starts to shed light on what’s really going on, many in the audience are likely to be too bored or frustrated to care. A tighter focus and shorter running time might have eliminated some of these issues; unfortunately, the film feels bloated at nearly two hours long and the story is often sketchy, partially due to the inclusion of a sprawling cast of mostly unnamed characters who do nothing but muddle the plot. Plus, moments that could be full of wonder are undercut by visual effects that don’t look quite right or can’t be seen clearly.
Risen is the rare original idea in a pop-culture landscape riddled by reboots and sequels, however, the movie Arya has built around that idea is so dull, it’s hard to watch. It would be fascinating to see what a filmmaker like Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) or Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) could do with the premise. In its current form, though, Risen simply isn’t worth the time required to discover its secrets.