In the Shadow of the Moon (Jim Mickle, 2019) – Full Original – Sci-Fi Procedural
Philadelphia, 1988. Three apparently unrelated strangers die suddenly from massive hemorrhages. Patrolman Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbook), aka Locke, is keen to investigate and discovers odd marks on the back of each of the victims’ necks, leading the police to realize the victims were murdered. When Locke and fellow policemen Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine) and Holt (Michael C. Hall) corner a suspect, she falls in front of a train and dies. Nine years later, however, the detectives are shocked when another wave of identical murders happens and surveillance footage reveals that the killer has somehow returned. Chasing her down and figuring out how she came back becomes Locke’s lifelong obsession, destroying everything else along the way as he seeks to prove that the killer has actually been sent from the future.
In the Shadow of the Moon is something of a paradox in that it is simultaneously an earnest attempt on Netflix’s part at creating science fiction based on an original idea, and a completely derivative genre mashup. Its “high concept” is more or less, hardboiled cop movie plus time travel from a post-apocalyptic future. As is so often the case, making a hybrid genre film is a risky venture and difficult to execute well in creative terms.
While I will have more to say about Netflix’s virtue for taking the risk, the execution is yet again a problem in this case, though not as much as has been seen in previous Netflix hybrid genre films such as Game Over Man! which bungled the attempt to meld comedy and action or, even closer to Shadow in terms of tone and content, Bright which failed to convincingly bring together the cop drama with sci-fi and fantasy. To be sure, Shadow is better than either of these predecessors but it still somehow manages to absorb the worst of the clichés of its two main genres. From the police procedural, we get the obsessed cop haunted by his personal demons and unable to let go of the case, no matter the damage it does to him. Of course, he is also a great detective and reckless, and on and on.
From sci-fi, we get the clichés of nonsensical time travel logic, which is never fully explained and numerous fairly obvious questions crop up. Wouldn’t the people from the future be able to anticipate the problems better, seeing as how they’re from the future? Why do they need to kill their victims in this weirdly spectacular way? Why exactly does the moon have to be a certain position for time travel to be possible in the first place? If you were to devote any serious thought to these questions or others, the script would completely unravel.
If you just love sci-fi you may object at this point and say “just don’t think about it then!” and you would be right in some senses. The film works the clichés well enough for it to be enjoyable for genre fans (hence my three star rating) but I think with better craftsmanship at the genre level and with some original characters you would have something more special here. In this sense, I think of this film as being much in the same vein of the Spanish film Mirage that I reviewed on the blog a while back, a film that likewise struggled with its sci-fi conceit but was still fairly enjoyable. To its credit, Shadow also goes beyond just entertainment with some interesting social commentary as well.
A remarkable aspect of the film from an industrial point-of-view is the way in which Netflix promoted it as an example of its commitment to middle-budget film-making, as seen in numerous interviews with director Jim Mickle. I cannot find an exact budget figure for the film, but I would understand “middle budget” in the context of Anglophone film-making to be $25-$75 million, give or take. On the face of it, this seems about right for the film’s production values and cast.
In case you don’t follow global box office trends, film-making in this range is under threat, particularly when it is not aimed at awards season. While all the studios make films they hope will have Oscar appeal in that budgetary range, getting films made at this cost that are aimed at broader audiences and which lack famous source material is being done less and less. It hasn’t disappeared altogether – think of Knives Out or Hustlers for example – but many pundits are thinking it will have to happen on streaming services if it is to continue in an era of franchises and nine figure budgets (even though SVOD has also yet to be proven to be profitable and sustainable!). We will see if it is the case, but Netflix did honestly take a shot on a “spec” idea with some social commentary in this case and that is laudable. Whatever the future may hold for the industry, film fans need there to be space for experimentation and Shadow is one of the outcomes of Netflix acting as precisely that.
Boyd Holbrook was the original star of Netflix’s blockbuster series Narcos and besides this film will also be reuniting with Narcos cast-mate Pedro Pascal in the upcoming Netflix film We Can Be Heroes.
Michael C. Hall starred in the Netflix series Safe and is also the star of Dexter, a series which is licensed by Netflix in many territories.
Bokeem Woodbine will also be appearing in the Netflix movie Spenser: Confidential.
Production company 42, run by producer Ben Pugh, made the film under a first-look deal with Netflix. Under that deal they also made the film In Darkness for the service. They also previously sold the film Titan to Netflix for release in some territories and produced the series Watership Down and Traitors, both of which were branded as Netflix originals in many parts of the world. The company recently renewed its deal with Netflix and has two films currently in production, both of which seem to be in the sci-fi genre: Night Teeth and Outside the Wire.
Automatik, run by Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, also produced Operation Finale, which ended up as a Netflix original movie outside of the US. The company is also working on Outside the Wire.