Film Review: Extinction

The rare zombie movie that would benefit from less zombie action.
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Given the enduring popularity of Richard Matheson's 1954 post-vampire apocalypse novel, I Am Legend, it's a little surprising it's taken this long for an enterprising horror filmmaker to tweak the premise by swapping out bloodsuckers for brain-eaters. Not that the zombie film Extinction—which is actually adapted from a more recent novel, Juan de Dios Garduño's 2010 book, Y Pese a Todo—could be described as a beat-for-beat re-telling of Matheson's tale. For one thing, instead of one lone survivor inhabiting a desolate world that's been severely depopulated by monsters, this movie features three: former friends Patrick (Matthew Fox) and Jack (Jeffrey Donovan), as well as nine-year-old Lu (Quinn McColgan), whose exact parentage is at the root of their falling out.

But director Miguel Ángel Vivas clearly has I Am Legend on the brain in the way he imagines the trio's living situation—holed up in twin houses surrounded by barbed wire and other barricades—not to mention the personal growth experienced by the movie's bogeymen. The closing chapters of Matheson's book presented a new vampire society being born out of the ashes of the old world, and while Extinction doesn't go so far as to create a Zombiepopolis populated by erudite members of the walking dead, it does posit that the undead aren't immune to evolution.

See, in the years since the zombie plague ravaged humanity, a deep freeze has descended on the planet, rendering it a slightly less impassable winter wonderland than the one on display in Snowpiercer. The undead that managed to survive the killer frost have adapted to the new climate, sacrificing their eyesight for enhanced hearing and building up a tolerance to extreme cold. In the face of this new breed of being, Patrick, Jack and Lu—who hide in their respective houses and, when they do venture out, huddle in warm coats to keep out the chill—seem like relics from a vanished age; with humanity gone, Earth belongs to the Ice Zombies.

In theory, the petty arguments that divide the three should seem equally old-fashioned, and even dull in the face of the brave new world beyond their doorstep. But Extinction gets a surprising amount of dramatic mileage out of what should be a hoary central conflict. As a prologue establishes, Jack and Patrick were in the process of fleeing the zombie hordes with Patrick's wife, Emma (Valeria Vereau), and baby Lu in tow when Emma received a fatal bite, forcing her husband to do the unthinkable. At some point during the subsequent nine years (a series of embedded flashbacks eventually reveal all the details), Jack removed Lu from Patrick's house for her own safety, raising her to believe that he was her father while her real dad leads a solitary existence next door, raiding the nearby town for supplies and broadcasting to nobody on his HAM radio.

Once upon a time, Lu was willing to accept the status quo, but now that she's approaching the dreaded double digits, it's increasingly difficult for Jack to keep her placated, let alone indoors. This coincides with Patrick's own mental deterioration, where he imagines a voice speaking to him through his radio, urging him to embrace his inner Jack Torrance and "discipline" his neighbor. Using the story's limited setting to his advantage, Vivas does a nice job setting up the looming confrontation between Jack and Patrick—with Lu caught in the middle—designing frames that emphasize the latter's isolation (at several key moments, the radio is positioned in the foreground while Patrick cowers in the background) and the former's overprotectiveness (he often resembles another barrier that Lu has to navigate around). Donovan and Fox both contribute solid performances to the mix as well, doing exactly what the script requires of them, if not exactly going above and beyond when the occasion demands it.

Midway through, unfortunately, Extinction abruptly changes course from an I Am Legend-meets-The Shining hybrid in favor of a more routine and generic home-invasion affair with a squad of zombies beating down Jack and Lu's door, just as a conveniently reformed Patrick comes to his friends' aid. Vivas already has one home-invasion film on his resume, the deeply unpleasant 2010 thriller Kidnapped, and Extinction suggests that this genre simply isn't his forte. Most of his visual ideas are cribbed from other, better movies (the most blatant being a Minority Report-inspired sequence where the camera swings above the characters' heads and descends three stories from the attic to the basement) and there's little of the claustrophobic tension you see in a vintage Romero zombie movie or even an average episode of “The Walking Dead.” Extinction was likely never going to be a zombie classic, but the first half at least suggests that an interesting take on the material might be in the offing. Instead, the movie consumes its own brains and becomes another mindless creature feature.

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