I’ve realized something important in the past year or two: I don’t really like period pieces. I like watching films from other eras and seeing them as they represent their own culture and time, but I don’t really like seeing them try to reminisce about a better (or worse) point in history. The further back it goes, the less interested I am. There are exceptions to be made, of course, but they’re few and far in between.
Almost Human is set in the late 1980s, which would be a strike against it, if it wasn’t for the fact that its time period is all but irrelevant. It would be basically the same movie if it was set in 2013 as it is set in 1989.
Somehow, that’s even worse.
Director: Joe Begos
Release Date: 2/21/14
You can usually tell how long any given movie’s credits are going to roll based on both the length and production values of a film. Big studio films these days usually have about 10 minutes of credits; indie films have much less. Going into Almost Human, I expected a 76-minute movie with about four minutes of credits. Instead, I got a 72-minute movie with nearly 8 minutes of credits.
And how? Seriously? I’m not being pedantic here. I’m legitimately confused by that fact, because Almost Human doesn’t look like a movie that enough people to fill 8 minutes of credits worked on. It looks like the kind of thing that a few film students made after pooling their money and calling in some favors. And if everybody involved is actually a professional in their field, then they need to rethink their career paths.
There is only one person who can act in Almost Human. Fortunately, it’s the protagonist. Graham Skipper, who played Herbert West in that Re-Animator musical I saw back in the day, does a fine job as the haunted Seth Hampton. Two years prior, Seth’s friend, Mark, had been disappeared by something or other, but he blacked it out or something and something. Something. I dunno. The film showed us what happened and then vaguely explained away the characters it happened to not remembering, so we know what happened and they don’t. But then we don’t really know what happened in the ensuing years.
So right off the bat, the audience and characters are at odds with each other, and nobody ever gets on the same page, because each moment of clarity is hit with a moment of, “Wait, that makes no sense.”
I’m not even sure why there’s this pretense of a narrative. If the film started about 20 minutes in, when Mark returns to Earth after having been alien-ed or whatever, and just went from there, it would have been better. In part because Mark’s actor, Josh Ethier, is really bad at acting afraid. In fact, his acting is so wooden at the start of the film, that I assumed immediately that he was the “Almost Human” emotionless cyborg thing and Herbert West was about to get killed.
Nope. It was just bad acting. Mark gets taken away accompanied by a blue light and one of the most grating sounds in movie history (repeated a horrendous number of times throughout the film). But when he came back as the emotionless alien, it kind of worked. It was weird that there was no change in his intonation at all despite his having become an elevated being, but really, the less said about his opening performance, the better.
Once Alien Mark returns and starts killing people, Almost Human finds something resembling a groove. It’s still silly, awkward, and poorly acted, but impressive body counts have been masking those things for decades. And here it definitely helps, because the effects are the best thing about the film. They’re nice and cheap, practical things that look and feel weird because they are weird. The weird tube thing that comes from Mark’s mouth doesn’t look “real,” but that’s fine. We get what’s going on. And the big alien-making corpse-cocoons are inventive, if nothing else.
So maybe it’s a throwback to that old style, and that’s why the film is “set” in the 1980s, but that’s not how it comes across. It seems like a cop-out, like the director didn’t want to justify the fact that characters would, ya know, have cell phones and could call each other. It’s the reality of serial killer slasher films now: characters can contact one another. Pushing the film back so the killer can cut the phone line isn’t artistic: It’s easy. (And I understand that getting CRT TVs and old-ish phones and whatnot probably costs something, but when those are the primary signs that we’re in a different time, your prop department needs some work.)
Unless given a reason to think otherwise, audiences are going to assume films take place in the present day. To change the time period is to make a statement. Doing it because it’s easier (or even because it’s trying to harken back to an older time) isn’t enough. It can’t just evoke a period for the sake of doing so; it needs to be the period for a reason.
Almost Human doesn’t have a reason. Not for that, and not really for anything else.