Film Review: I Think We're Alone Now

What starts as a fascinating study of two people coping emotionally with humanity's near-extinction in an otherwise mostly intact world devolves into the third-act morass of an inexplicable plot turn.
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It wouldn't have been unreasonable to have expected that the quietly post-apocalyptic drama I Think We're Alone Now—about a small-town librarian who survived the sudden peaceful death of virtually all humanity—would owe some spiritual debt to the classic "Twilight Zone" episode "Time Enough at Last," in which nuclear-blast survivor Burgess Meredith finally has the time and the solitude to read a lifetime of books. Then, when the movie's male librarian meets a female survivor, it recalls the episode "Two," in which an American male soldier and a Russian female soldier come to realize that conventions such as nationalism have ended with the apocalypse.

To the filmmakers' credit, I Think We're Alone Now forges its own story despite such thematic echoes. Peter Dinklage plays the taciturn Del, sole survivor of a formerly 1,600-population town in upstate New York on the Hudson River. He occupies his days reading, fishing, scavenging, mostly for batteries, and "cleaning" houses by taking blankets and wrapping the dead—who appear to have gone suddenly, sitting at a table or with a TV remote still clutched in hand—and taking them by a pickup truck to graves he digs with a backhoe. The townsfolk have been dead long enough that they've started to mummify, indicating a fair amount of time has passed and making the beautifully subtle point that it's taken Del a while to reach the emotional and logistical stage to where he can do this.

Like Burgess Meredith if Burgess Meredith hadn't broken his glasses, Del, who lives in the library, seems perfectly well-adjusted to his solitude. There's apparently natural gas for the stove, though no electricity, of course, since as anyone who's seen "Life After People" knows, someone has to operate and maintain hydroelectric plants. (Nuclear plants, too, but for the sake of drama let's assume automatic safeguards shut everything down before meltdown.) There's plenty of bottled liquid, from wine to water, and canned goods in the fully stocked supermarket—which provides another subtle opportunity to show how much time has passed, with a remark about expiration dates, which are fairly prolonged for canned food. We never learn precisely what caused the extinction event, but fish, birds and at least one dog and one ant have survived.

Del's exquisite solitude is interrupted by Grace (Elle Fanning), a young woman who has crashed her car in town and knocked herself unconscious, Del treats her head wound but is understandably wary, especially since she's brought a handgun. (Tolstoy unrelatedly gets mentioned in passing, though fellow Russian writer Chekhov might have been more apropos, given his famous dictum.) Del and the largely opaque Grace soon reach a detente partnership based less on practicality than on acknowledgment—grudging on his part—that having company at the end of the world might not be so bad and needn't be complicated.

Had the movie explored such dynamics and the way they're affected by day-to-day survival, I Think We're Alone Now might have been a very good character study. But it takes a bizarre third-act turn that can't be properly analyzed without giving spoilers, so suffice to say the movie descends into illogic and inscrutability. There is so much wrong narratively, so many from-out-of-left-field concerns and questions, that you can just see an art-house indie suddenly, before your eyes, turning into a dystopian-society B-movie—Parts: The Clonus Horror, perhaps.

This falls squarely on screenwriter Mike Makowsky and not director-cinematographer Reed Morano, who on a limited budget creates an utterly credible and emotionally real world. You can almost feel the autumn air in her shots. But she's not helped by a bombastic and often highly inappropriate score, in which, for example, we're treated to loud, suspenseful, what's-gonna-happen-in-the-next-second music in a scene of two people standing quietly at a graveyard, where nothing else happens. And aside from the score in such moments not well reflecting the characters' inner lives, it also drowns out dialogue on a couple of occasions.

Save this one for TV. Switch it off when the formidable Paul Giamatti and Charlotte Gainsbourg arrive—doing as well as anyone can given the story, whose twist isn't worth the bother—and imagine for yourself better places where the story might have gone.