Netflix’s In the Shadow of the Moon plays smart tricks with timeOctober 27, 2019
Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.
One of the chief joys of the time travel subgenre is strictly mechanical: it’s all about the ways nonlinear characters let creators deconstruct a standard narrative, bringing different segments of the story together in unexpected ways. Construction-oriented movies like Timecrimes or Predestination scramble the order of the pieces on-screen, bait viewers to guess why certain things happen, and then slowly fit those pieces together into a startling whole.
But the same thing can be done in movies without time travel, like Memento, where the audience just receives the story out of order. A more specific and unique joy of time travel stories is the way they can address one of humanity’s chief bugaboos: the way choices, once made, can’t be unmade. Part of the reason science fiction writers have been obsessed with time travel for so long is because it lets people live out a fantasy of being able to fix the past with perfect hindsight, taking back choices and making new ones — hopefully better ones, but often entertainingly worse ones. There are variations on the genre, but more often than not, time travel stories embrace the fantasy of the do-over, the undo-key on life.
Netflix’s new thriller In the Shadow of the Moon hits both these buttons: it’s constructed as a puzzle for viewers to unlock (though, like a lot of mysteries, it cheats by leaving some key clues offscreen), and it plays with the fantasy of being able to fix the past and avert the present. It does both of these things a little clumsily, but for fans who already enjoy how the genre works, and feel more challenged than frustrated by the prospect of waiting for a story to fall into place, it does offer a sense of scope that most time travel stories don’t.
WHAT’S THE GENRE?
Science fiction. The technology that enables the film’s opening crimes isn’t immediately evident, but it’s almost instantly clear that it’s impossible by present-day standards. It’s the kind of film where the audience will be way ahead of the protagonists, simply because they recognize the trope and aren’t invested in denying time travel as an option. It’s like a zombie movie where the main characters keep saying “But zombies aren’t real!” no matter how many walking, moaning, rotting carcasses they face.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
In 1988, Philadelphia beat cop Tommy Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) is at a transition point in life: his wife is heavily pregnant, and he’s fairly sure he’s on the cusp of being promoted to detective. His daughter’s imminent arrival has him anxious, though, because as long as he’s stuck on overnight shifts, he’s out of sync with his wife Jeanie (Rachel Keller). So when people start dropping dead under strange conditions, he pushes himself further into the investigation than his rank warrants, hoping to prove his detective skills. That pushiness annoys his more laid-back partner, Winston Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine), and his boss and brother-in-law, Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall).
But Tommy’s aggressive lunge for involvement sets him up for a close encounter with the killer, who reveals things she shouldn’t know about him. It also sets him up to investigate when people start dying under identical circumstances exactly nine years later. By that time, he’s a detective, Holt is a police lieutenant, and life is different for everyone. It’s even more radically different nine years after that, by which point, Tommy has deduced the pattern behind the killings, even though no one believes his rants about time travel.
WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?
It’s more or less about the “Would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler?” ethical conundrum. If this was a less pulpy movie that was more devoted to exploring the ideas it presents, it might set off a significant conversation about the balance of one human life against thousands and the ethics of taking lives to save them. But In the Shadow of the Moon treats that question as easily answered and not worth exploring. Off with baby Hitler’s head!
IS IT GOOD?
It has its significant strengths. The greatest one is the way its construction lets audiences see the shape of what’s coming but not the details. The movie’s opening shot of a devastated office building, unchecked fires, widespread damage, and a seemingly deserted downtown in 2024 Philadelphia gives the whole film a palpable pressure. Tommy has a deadline and a limited number of nine-year jumps before disaster strikes, but he isn’t aware that he’s barreling toward a grim future. It’s a neat narrative trick that’s meant to put the audience on edge as they count down the years toward disaster.
But the other deadline is even more compelling: as the film moves forward, Tommy is visibly aging and disintegrating under the pressure of a threat other people keep dismissing. Each nine-year gap gives Philadelphia’s police force a chance to forget the previous wave of deaths and move on, and Tommy looks like a psychopath for clinging to his conspiracy theories for so long.
It’s clear early on that the story will check in on Tommy every nine years until he finally solves the mystery or dies trying. And then the filmmakers take every advantage of that setup. Tommy’s life doesn’t go the way he planned, and one of the film’s better conceits is the way director Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are) and writers Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock let the audience fill in the gaps between segments for themselves, drawing their own conclusions about the tragedies of Tommy’s life.
In that sense, Shadow of the Moon ends up playing into some of the natural human tragedy of generational projects like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a coming-of-age story filmed over the course of 12 years, or Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentary series, which checks in on the same group of Britons every seven years to see how their lives are coming along. (The latest installment, 63 Up, debuted on British TV earlier in 2019.) As Shadow of the Moon tracks Tommy’s losses, it starts to feel like a look at how people age, how quickly time gets away from us, and how we sacrifice possible parts of our lives with every priority we set.
But other aspects of the film aren’t as strong or well-considered. There’s a side plot involving a scientist who shows up in Tommy’s precinct with a handful of notes and some babble about the Moon, which explains both the film’s title and the nine-year gaps. But the character never feels particularly integrated with the story, and both his information and his later decisions feel like the worst kind of science fiction pulp plot spackle. The nature of the deaths raises a lot of questions that largely have to be answered with either “Because it’s convenient for the plot” or “Because it makes for cool visuals.” The concluding reveal is over the top both in its ridiculous patness and in its late-breaking attempt to spark big, soft emotions in a movie that never set its audience up to feel them.
The film concludes with a voice-over that seems aimed at belatedly turning the whole project into a much more thoughtful movie about consequences and connection than it actually is. As long as Shadow of the Moon sticks to action sequences and the pains of its isolated protagonist, it’s a tightly wound thriller with a surprising speculative element. But every attempt to reach outside that box feels half-hearted and frustratingly unfounded. It’s like a small film that’s trying to be bigger, without enough heart or structure to back up the larger ambitions.
WHAT SHOULD IT BE RATED?
There’s a fair bit of blood and a little gore, but nothing exceptionally stomach-wrenching. PG-13 at most.
HOW CAN I ACTUALLY WATCH IT?
In the Shadow of the Moon launched on Netflix on September 27th, 2019.