Island Zero starts well. First time director Josh Gerritsen does good work making viewers afraid of a monster without showing them what it is from the start. The film opens with a very drunk man singing to his dog on their boat. Yacht Man (Paul Hodgson) leaves his dog on deck as he goes under to fix himself another martini. The dog passes by two open windows before it disappears behind a third closed one. It’s a great moment because Gerritsen manages to tip viewers off that whatever happened to the dog on the other side of that window wasn’t good.
That dread of knowing something is wrong but not being able to nail down exactly what it is really works in Island Zero. The fish have disappeared off the coast of an island off Maine. Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), a biologist chasing a previously undiscovered apex predator, explains, “The pattern is always the same. The sudden disappearance of fish. Local economic devastation. Then the fisherman start to die.”
While Sam’s predictions are playing out, Gerritsen introduces the large cast of characters. His mother, physician turned novelist Tess Gerritsen, included more than ten named characters in her screenplay. The Gerritsens do good work distinguishing the characters with distinct voices and looks. Though some of the characters are one-dimensional, the gimmicks are memorable enough that no one shows up and gets a “Who the hell is that?” reaction.
As these characters come, the problems escalate. A local who went to get his radar fixed doesn’t come back. The ferry doesn’t show up one day. And then again the next. The tension on the island is building when another local goes missing, leaving only a trail of blood off of his boat. Then the bodies start to show up.
Not coincidentally, this is also where Island Zero stops working. Sam finds a stomach and brings it back to the lab for the marooned traveling doctor Maggie (Laila Robins) to examine, but the stomach looks like a prop. It doesn’t bear any marks that suggest its been ripped violently out of a living person either. It’s not fair to fault a film for not being able to afford special effects, but the real problem was how long the camera focused on a prop that was clearly fake. Gore and viscera are meant to disgust audiences, not squint and wonder what it’s made out of. Other low budget shockers shake cameras, cut away quickly, or show only reaction shots to get around this. By keeping the camera on the stomach for the length of the dissection, the younger Gerritsen breaks the fictive dream.
The special effects only get worse as the monsters show up in an infrared camera. Again, Gerristen doesn’t do enough to protect the FX work from being recognized as amateur and low budget. It also becomes clearer as Island Zero goes that while there are a variety of characters introduced, Sam, Maggie, and the wonderfully named writer Titus McClean (Matthew Wilkas) are the only ones who really matter to the Gerritsens. Everyone else (including the locals, who’ve spent their lives on the island, who’re working class) has the same odds against the monsters as Stormtroopers have against Luke Skywalker. Narratively, it makes sense. Not every character can be important in every story. But shafting the working class while simultaneously not including a single character of color does seem to be a politically thick-headed move.
If either Gerritsen had spent a little time talking to the locals they might’ve noticed another problem. They’ve set a movie in Maine in December with the climax on Christmas day but didn’t have any snow. While not impossible, it’s much more than likely that there would have been a few inches of snow at that point.
Despite its problems, there’s a lot to like in Island Zero. There’s a campy sensibility that goes well with the modernized monster movie. Matthew Wilkas plays Titus McClean well as a caricature of someone pretending to be a New York writer. There are also some great lines, my favorite being, “You’re negotiating with a fish.” With a lot more budget and a little more experience the Gerritsens could be filmmakers to look out for.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Josh Gerritsen
Writer(s): Tess Gerritsen
Stars: Laila Robins, Adam Wade McLaughlin, Teri Reeves, Matthew Wilkas
Release date: May 15th, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Donkey Universe Films
Length: 99 minutes
Subgenre: Monster Movie