These days, watching a Netflix science-fiction film is like picking through the bins of a high-end restaurant. You might, if you’re lucky, fish out something relatively fresh, like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, which was consigned to the streaming platform internationally after a uselessly short U.S. theatrical run. But you’re likelier to discover something foul-smelling and potentially poisonous, like Duncan Jones’s neon nightmare Mute, the criminally drab slab of thoughtless body-horror that was The Titan, or most recently the uneventful apocalyptic family drama, How It Ends. This week it’s Extinction, courtesy of Australian filmmaker Ben Young, which isn’t toxic enough to kill but will likely give you a bit of a stomach ache.
Originally slated for a theatrical release in January, the project was dropped by Universal and salvaged by Netflix, much like the thrice-delayed The Cloverfield Paradox, and as such much of the film feels destined for a bigger screen and a more eager audience. That would certainly explain Extinction’s creative pedigree; it boasts an oddly bland script by Eric Heisserer, who wrote Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and two surprisingly committed leading performances from Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan as Peter and Alice, a couple with two young girls who are all caught up in the midst of an alien invasion.
Of course, you can see the invasion coming – and so can Peter. He’s haunted by portentous visions of impending arrival and flashes of open conflict in the streets, he and his boss (Mike Colter) firing futuristic rifles in the vague direction of costumed, fishbowl-helmeted humanoid troopers. Peter’s apocalyptic foresight saps some of the dramatic heft from later sequences, which could have done without the tell-tale snippets, but much of the action in Extinction is obscured by dim lighting anyway, presumably to obscure how cheap everything looks.
I’ve seen worse-looking features, for sure, but Extinction leans so heavily on pyrotechnics, fisticuffs and shootouts that it’s easy to get a bit fed up with all the obvious attempts to edit around them. The film’s best set-pieces are less bombastic, such as a perilous skyscraper descent, and Young, clearly a skilled director, manages to build a notable amount of tension when he isn’t being hamstrung by the formulaic story or the shoestring budget.
It’s a shame, really, that Extinction feels so circumscribed. The undertones of childhood resentment that colour the setup suggest a more character-focused experience than what is ultimately delivered, while the snatches of social commentary – “A machine took my job!” – and a late, not particularly well-handled twist, suggest a more ambitious story lurking in the margins of the one being told. This is serviceable sci-fi, competently made and dedicatedly performed, but it isn’t the type that’ll linger in the minds of those who have fought off such invasions before.