‘Arcadian’ Review: A Near-Perfect, Surprisingly Emotional Creature-Feature With Wildly Scary Monster Mayhem

Kevin Taft reviews Arcadian, a monster movie that is not only scary, touching, and white-knuckle suspenseful, but features some of the best creature effects of the last decade.
User Rating: 9.5

One of the biggest surprises of the year! Director Benjamin Brewer’s monster movie Arcadian is not only scary, touching, and white-knuckle suspenseful, but it has some of the best creature effects of the last decade.

Written by Michael Nilon (“Braven”), “Arcadian” creates a dystopian near future where an unknown global event has crippled the world and released horrific beasts that attack the human race at night. Not much is known about the creatures, nor do we get a firm explanation of what happened to make the world the way it is, but that’s on purpose. Brewer’s film is a slice-of-life reality of a family living out a day-to-day existence in an impossible situation.

Nicholas Cage plays Paul, a single father of two who has spent the last fifteen years making sure his twin sons are protected. He’s consistently shielded them from harm and taught them how to survive the creatures of the night.

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Living in an abandoned home that they’ve outfitted with all sorts of barriers to keep them safe, Paul and his 15-year-old sons Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins, “Lost in Space”) and Joseph (Jaeden Martell, “It”) live a gloomy daily existence while trying to come of age in an uncertain time.

Every night, when the sun goes down, all three men ensure they are safely holed up in their home, barricading the entrances and bracing the doors with their bodies when the creatures try to get inside.

Joseph is the brains of the bunch and is interested in the habits of unusual beings, trying to track patterns and where they come from. On the other hand, Thomas is distracted by a local rose farm where he often helps the family and their farmhands with daily tasks. He’s also taken with the family’s daughter Charlotte (Sadie Soverall).

But boys will be boys, and one day when the twins are tasked with driving out to an abandoned area to forage for supplies, Thomas decides to leave Joseph on his own. Things go awry, of course, but not totally in the way the audience expects.

From here on, it’s better left to experience than for me to recap. Nilon’s script keeps us guessing as to what the creatures are, and Brewer’s direction certainly keeps us in the dark. He knows that less is more, and we only catch glimpses of the thing for much of the film. But even when we think we’ve seen it all… we haven’t.

The scenes involving the monsters are full of genuinely hair-raising suspense and startling reveals that make you gasp and squirm. And that’s half the fun of it. More than once, you find yourself frantically wondering, “What the hell is that thing?” And it’s been a long time since a movie’s beast(s) have been that surprising.

But that’s not all that’s surprising about the film. The relationships between the brothers are not just realistic but also complicated. Imagine being a teenager having never experienced friendship from someone outside your family, not to mention having the opportunity for romantic love. And imagine that compounded by the fact that the world is a hopeless place that exists just as a means to survive. It’s a desperate world full of desperate people striving to connect with each other and make sense of it all.

Cage tempers his performance here, playing a loving and protective father while handing the film over to the kids for a good portion of the running time. Both of the young actors are terrific as well. Jenkins shows a newfound maturity since we last saw him as Will Robinson in the Netflix reboot of “Lost in Space.” But that maturity is not without remnants of still being, in many ways, a child. And the conflict that he engenders is one that will cause him to quickly grow up when faced with something bigger than himself.

Similarly, Martell offers a contemplative counterpoint to his reactionary brother. While Thomas is more social and prefers to work with his hands, Joseph is quiet and introspective. He spends his days reading or studying the game of chess while also trying to work out the best way to fight the creatures.

When things start to go wrong, the two brothers realize they need to stop being combative and use their strengths to work together if they are ever going to survive. This is the heart of the story.

Brewer wisely keeps the characters the focal point, only amping up the frights when the story calls for it. And when it does, it is visceral and terrifying, making it all the more effective than if he had wall-to-wall action. (He also wisely keeps the gore to a minimum.)

Instead, he draws a moving portrait of a family fighting to survive while trying to build a life together.

Credit must be given to the musical score by Kristin Gundred and Josh Martin. From the moment the main idyllic themes are heard, you know you’re not just seeing a standard “shocker” horror film. Along with the cast and crew, the filmmakers find the tender humanity amidst the heartbreak of a world that is forever changed. And may not have a future. It’s, at times, remarkably beautiful and surprisingly touching.

But man, those unstoppable monsters are something else. Almost like a realistic Tim Burton creation come to frightening life. And that’s a very, very good thing. Certain images will stay in your head long after the final frame.

Arcadian is a near-perfect emotional creature feature that showcases inventive monster-mayhem, characters to care about, and a mature portrayal of a world in crisis. Go for the scares. Stay for how much it will move you.

Arcadian opens exclusively in theaters on April 12, 2024. 

Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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