Starring: Shannon Hutchinson, Vito Trigo, Jasmina Parent, Johnathan Newport, Yael Haskal, Irene Santiago, Jeffrey Alan Solomon, Jean Louise O’Sullivan, Dietrich Teschner
Written and Directed by: Drew Bolduc
Please keep your joy to a minimum in the President’s presence, please.
Assassinaut (2019) launches us to a future where Earth has been invaded by an alien species. The intense opening shows us that a possible treaty was in the works. Instead, the President of Earth (Irene Santiago) decides to wipe out the alien threat with a nuclear bomb that has several human casualties.
Ten years later, the President has created a propaganda program that sends kids into space. The four kids are Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson), a headstrong leader who wants to make her parents proud; the soft-spoken Charlie (Jasmina Parent), a shy girl who befriends Sarah; Brooke (Yael Haskal), a science wiz and big-time fangirl of the President; and Tom (Johnathan Newport), an entitled little rich kid who has enough cynicism for the whole group.
The kids are teleported to a space station that orbits an alien planet to hold a meet and greet with the President as she explains that children are the future of Earth. However, as this is going on, a terrorist infiltrates the space station and attempts to assassinate the President. His attempt appears to fail, but he has a bomb strapped to his chest, forcing everyone to clamor for escape pods and launch to the surface of the alien planet.
The kids find their supervisor/babysitter The Commander (Vito Trigo), and together, they attempt to survive the alien planet while looking for the President to keep her alive. However, the hostile environment starts to take a toll on the group. They soon uncover a plot to make the President pay for what she had done all those years ago.
For a movie that’s billed as a sci-fi horror, it does a remarkable job creating a humble, low-budget environment that is the perfect home for a gripping and compelling story. The opening scene is intense right off the bat, but then the film moves on to tell the story at a drawn-out pace that really becomes its biggest strength. There are several moments where the scenes stall for awkward pauses, drawn out stares, intense interaction between characters, etc. There are plenty of graphic images throughout the movie, but the aforementioned moments are perhaps more unsettling. A movie about outer space uses a lot of a different kind of space for dramatic effect.
The movie also eschews the expected hi-tech universe and decides to go for a quainter and more familiar atmosphere that still somehow works for the story. We meet Sarah—the main protagonist—at her family’s rural farmhouse that reminded me of the main setting in Signs (2008). When the kids are brought together for orientation, the lecturer gives them a riveting speech in a school lecture hall. The President’s space station is a tight, industrial bunker rather than a spacious, modern palace. The characters’ space suits look more like your local Boy Scout troop’s threads instead of a high-tech suit with all the latest gadgets and gizmos. It almost feels like Wes Anderson took Twin Peaks and made a sci-fi horror movie out of it.
The acting, overall, is fairly strong other than a few minor characters who felt more rehearsed than natural. All of the kids fit into their roles; I was particularly fond of Haskal’s Brooke geeking out and found Newport’s Tom to be a convincing arrogant little prick. They all gelled well with Trigo’s Commander—their begrudging babysitter-turned-survivalist-coach. Hutchinson and Parent carried the film with their chemistry between Sarah and Charlie, which makes the twist at the end a lot more jarring.
And for a low-budget film, there were truly moments of horror. When The Commander loses control after an alien infection, there are several heart-pounding moments escalated by his grotesque transformation. There was one scene in which Sarah has to crawl through an alien tunnel that was incredibly claustrophobic. Another scene where a character delivers the perfect one-liner only to see their efforts backfire felt distinctly anti-Hollywood.
If I had one complaint, I wish that the film could have included a little more backstory to flesh out Sarah’s character. We get a glimpse at her family’s dynamic, which includes her bed-ridden, amnesiac mother. I wish we could have seen more of her relationship with her mother and how that might have had an effect on the decisions she makes throughout the film. However, this is a minor quibble of mine.
Assassinaut uses a compelling story, strong acting, and effective sets to work within a small budget and create a gripping film that almost felt too short by the time the credits rolled.