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Atomica, the new film from director Dagen Merrill, is a small-scale, character-based science fiction movie about two people stranded together in a single location and learning to live with one another while they both possibly conceal secrets. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it could also describe the Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, Passengers, from late 2016. I make this comparison not to suggest the former copied the latter—Atomica is no “mockbuster” imitation—but instead just to say that if I had to choose between Passengers and Atomica, I’d go with Atomica.

Sometime in the unspecified future, America is run solely on nuclear power by a massive corporate entity. When one of the power plants goes mysteriously offline on Christmas day, safety inspector Abby Dixon (Sarah Habel, seen most recently as a younger, hotter version of Miss Grundy on the hit CW series Riverdale) is dispatched to the desert to see what’s wrong and repair the problem. Once there, though, Abby learns that the scientist in charge of the station has gone missing and finds only Robinson (Dominic Monaghan), a repairman whom Abby is not entirely certain can be trusted. As the two uneasily work together to fix the station, Abby discovers more about what has actually been happening at the plant… and then Dr. Zek (Tom Sizemore) returns, once again calling everything into question. It’s hard to know who to trust when you’re irradiated.

Atomica is the second film released by Syfy films, following last year’s 400 Days, but don’t confuse that with the kinds of movies that so often air on Syfy—those of the Sharknado or Dinocroc vs. Supergator variety. This new venture is the network’s attempt to break into the theatrical marketplace with smaller, serious, low-budget science fiction films that, thus far, have demonstrated none of the camp factor so often associated with the brand.

While it isn’t always able to overcome a number of science fiction cliches, the screenplay (by Kevin Burke, Federico Fernandez-Armesto, and Adam Gyngell) at least tries to address some realities of the human condition. Sometimes Atomica plays as an environmentalist warning, while at other times getting bogged down in explaining the logistics of how its future tech functions. Sometimes it’s a mystery about who to trust, at others it’s a cynical treatise on corporate politics. The movie probably tries to do too many things in its 81-minute running time, but I’d rather see a movie that’s overly ambitious than one that’s competently lazy or indifferent any day of the week.

While I appreciate what the filmmakers are able to accomplish on what I assume to be a pretty low budget, there isn’t much about Atomica that’s visually different from much of the dystopian sci-fi of the last 20 years or so. What makes the movie really stand apart are the performances by a trio of actors cleverly cast against type… or are they? Sarah Habel is quick to engender our sympathy, even as a half-formed subplot flashing back to the loss of her grandmother doesn’t quite pay off.

Tom Sizemore and Dominic Monaghan are especially inspired choices for their roles, as the actors both carry with them a certain preconceived notion about who their characters will be. Because the film plays a lot of games with identity and motivation—I won’t say more for fear of spoilers—the actors playing the parts manage to keep us guessing until director Merrill is ready to play his final card. Monaghan, in particular, does a really nice job of walking the line between a nice guy who’s maybe a little weird and a potentially dangerous guy who’s only passing as nice. He uses his innate likability as a weapon against the audience.

In the end result, Atomica is a well-intentioned and well-executed effort that may be too slight to really stand the test of time. There are strong performances, some solid direction, and a few good ideas, but the total package also offers a few too many familiar tropes to set it apart within a genre field that continues to grow more and more crowded as advancements in technology and CG allow low-budget movies to realize what was once only possible on a big studio budget. As a science fiction movie, it comes up a little short. As a story about disillusionment, it’s far more interesting—a corporate “yes” woman losing faith in the powers that be and an examination of whether it is more dangerous to do the right thing the wrong way or the wrong thing through the proper channels. That’s a movie in which I’m interested.

Movie Score: 2.5/5

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Atomica will receive a limited theatrical release starting on March 17th and will be available on VOD beginning March 21st.

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