'Out of Darkness': In the Stone Age, No One Can Hear You Scream
Neither the best nor worst 'Alien' rip-off.
Director Andrew Cumming’s Out of Darkness is the latest in a long line of Alien rip-offs. The basic premise - a group of people in a relatively confined space are terrorized by something inhuman that picks them off one by one - has been recreated not only in outer space (Life, Pitch Black, Creature, Critters 4), but also in caves (The Descent, The Cave), the jungle (Predator), the sea (Deep Rising), the deep sea (Underwater, Leviathan, Deep Star Six), and the boudoir (Species). 2022’s highly-entertaining Predator prequel, Prey, was Alien vs. a Comanche circa 1700 A.D.; Out of Darkness seeks to one-up Prey by being Alien vs. The Flintstones circa 45,000 B.C.E. It’s even subtitled - the characters all speak in a (fictional) ancient language. Take THAT, Prey.
Out of Darkness follows six Paleolithic people - a hunter, his son, his extremely pregnant new mate, his brother, a “stray” young woman, and some old guy - as they come to a foreign land in search of a new home (they’re not really the most memorable bunch of characters - no Sigourney Weavers, Harry Dean Stantons, or Yaphet Kottos in this ensemble). Almost immediately, however, something seemingly inhuman starts to hunt the group, and, well, that’s obviously a problem for them. Cue the carnage.
Contextualizing Alien in the stone age is a pretty neat idea… but Out of Darkness doesn’t do much that feels genuinely unique to its setting. It kind of helps thematically; since the story asserts a very grandiose thesis about humankind as a whole (there are, I kid you not, characters named Adem and Ave), it makes some sense to have it take place when we were, as a species, still fairly primitive.
But that doesn’t change the fact that these characters could just as easily be on a camping trip with no cell service or shipwrecked on a deserted island or whatever whatever whatever and the plot could still play out the same exact way, only with different costumes and in a modern (non-fictional) language. That the characters even HAVE language seems like a wasted opportunity - why not truly commit to the bit and have them be pre-verbal, Quest for Fire-style? If there’s no better answer than “It’s easier to tell a story with dialogue than it is without,” well, sorry, that’s not good enough.
This may be unfair, but Out of Darkness taking place before documented history feels less like a sincere creative decision and more like a requisite budgetary consideration - it’s way cheaper to dress a handful of actors in animal hides and have them run around in the woods than it is to build a spaceship or shut down a populated area or do any of the things you’d need to do to make a movie otherwise.
These flaws might feel more forgivable if the movie were either scarier or more fun. Cumming understands one of Alien’s most essential lessons - leave as much to the imagination of the audience as you reasonably can - but doesn’t come up with inventive ways to enact that lesson. So unless you’ve somehow never seen one of these kinds of movies before, you’re not gonna feel scared, because you’re gonna see every attack coming from ten miles away.
As for being fun, well… it can’t be that, either.
VERY MINOR SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH
There is, at one point, the threat of sexual violence, which may be true to the era and/or further bolster the filmmakers’ overall point, but also means the film can never be anything but deathly serious. Whereas Alien (and Jaws, for that matter) preys on our fears of sexual violence in non-literal ways that disturb our subconscious without actually asking us to think about assault (watch this and this and tell me they’re not rape scenes), Out of Darkness just plops it in the middle of the movie, it becomes a weight around the film’s neck. As I’ve said again and again and again, part of what makes genre so powerful is the way it can soften the blow of deeply-troublesome issues… but again, Out of Darkness doesn’t soften the blow! The audience bought a ticket to see a fantastical creature eat people and then they get a scene from Boys Don’t Cry. It’s like selling the customer a teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine go down, but then just giving them medicine.
And that’s to say nothing of a late-in-the-game reveal that highlight’s the meaning of the story but, on a purely practical level, really makes no sense. Honestly, I think this is the least of the movie’s problems - assuming they’re truly caught up in the story, viewers tend to be forgiving when emotional logic trumps actual logic. They may, understandably, feel less-forgiving towards Out of Darkness.
VERY MINOR SPOILER ENDS
None of this changes the fact that, on a basic narrative level, Out of Darkness is mostly competent - free from context, the story is basically sturdy. Put more condescendingly, if I was teaching a screenwriting 101 course and a student brought this to me, I’d be proud of that student for grasping the fundamentals of dramatic narrative, and pleased that they were taking a stab at profundity.
For that reason alone, Out of Darkness cannot be considered one of the lesser Alien rip-offs.
But it can’t be considered one of the better ones, either.
Out of Darkness is in theaters February 9.