Risen won’t fare well with impatient streamers. Writer-director Eddie Arya should be applauded for his creative ambition, but even the most forward-thinking filmmakers need strong performances to sell their product. Unfortunately, Risen’s unrefined first act distracts from the conceptual innovation, and thus devalues the 2021 science fiction thriller as a whole.
In Risen, Nicole Schalmo makes her feature debut as Lauren Stone, an astrophysicist prodigy. A strong opening sequence provides contextual information about the protagonist, who struggles with alcoholism and haunting childhood memories. When a basketball-sized meteorite strikes Earth, dissolves into the soil and pollutes the air, Dr. Stone conducts research before coming face-to-face with a plant-like lifeform. As the being rapidly evolves, American scientists realize that it can reanimate deceased locals, evidenced by a terrific scene featuring Dominic Stone as Rob Windsor. In order to understand the present, Lauren must grapple with the past.
With Risen, Arya seems to favor his creative vision over the practical elements. He succeeds with the overall structure and pacing but doesn’t receive much help from minor players who clearly have little acting experience and, importantly, receive dreadful dialogue in key dramatic moments. Risen’s first act includes awkward line readings (“You are urgently needed!”), while the second part has a bizarre moment where a lower-level military figure approaches a superior and states “This is breaking news!” It’s almost like the director just told the actor “In this moment, you are supposed to be delivering breaking news.” Sure, such weirdness allows for cult film potential, yet the strangest moments don’t vibe with the film as a whole. Furthermore, Arya doesn’t trust the audience to connect the dots with Lauren’s personality and addiction issues — the protagonist is clearly an alcoholic, and so the visuals of booze feel unnecessary. After all the extended exposition, though, Risen becomes a much better film.
There’s cinematic value to be found in Risen if audiences can get through the first half. Despite all the early screenplay issues, Arya delivers a genuinely impressive final act that benefits Schalmo’s lead performance. The actress spends most of Risen gazing off into the distance and saying little, all the while ironically outperforming her over-acting castmates. During a final-act reveal, Schalmo goes all in and effectively informs the audience about Lauren’s emotional baggage. It’s arguably Risen’s best moment, one that’s all about a performer looking inward and being invulnerable. Next time around, hopefully Arya will prioritize authentic acting over sci-fi tropes. If the collective performances don’t resonate, then the modern moviegoer will look elsewhere — probably at a phone — and potentially gloss over crucial contextual information that complements the climax. And Risen does indeed conclude with a glorious final shot.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.