A messy, overly convoluted, and ultimately disappointing sci-fi/horror mash-up, Project Ithaca takes a kernel of an original and novel idea, bogs it down with cliches, and talks more about how cool and smart it thinks it is instead of showing the audience anything remotely entertaining or intelligent. At its black, oozing heart, Project Ithaca is primarily a combining of heady sci-fi themes about philosophy and consumerism in the vein of The Matrix franchise and the mysterious, spooky puzzles that made up the Saw and Collector series, with a healthy side of Fire in the Sky alien abduction paranoia. It’s not just that these settings don’t mesh well. It’s that they all require lugubrious explanations that neither the material, nor the film’s overall budget, could ever afford to convey with any degree of conviction.
Five strangers awaken from an unexpected slumber to find themselves trapped onboard an alien craft floating through space (one that looks so suspiciously like one of the Sentinels from the Matrix films that the Wachowski sisters might want to consult their legal team). They’re held in place and tortured by these giant, slimy black tentacle things that seems to be provoking them into thinking about painful memories they tried to bury in the past. There’s a researcher from the U.S. Department of Defense (James Gallanders), a rock star (Alex Woods), a high school teacher (Konima Parkinson-Jones), a tough-talking thief (Daniel Fathers), a French speaking, drug addicted sex worker (Caroline Raynaud), and a mumbling, parroting, intense looking young woman (Deragh Campbell) who might be the key to figuring out why they’ve been taken and where they’re all heading.
Project Ithaca gets off to a terrible, borderline laughable start and never recovers in the slightest. As the kidnapped passengers start waking up – tethered to the film’s cut-rate set by what appears to be sticks wrapped in garbage bags that have been doused in chocolate syrup – Canadian director Nicholas Humphries (who has many credits to his name, almost all of which you’ve probably never heard of or seen) offers up a bunch of quick cutting visuals marked by the kinds of deafening swoosh noises and stuttering “edgy” visuals that suggest this was actually made sometime in the mid-to-late 90s in someone’s backyard by someone who really loved Nine Inch Nails videos. Even offering up that comparison is a cliche at this point, so having to sit through another one of these drab, falsely pumped up thrillers where nothing of consequence happens for most of the running time feels like unearthing a relic from cinematic history that’s best left forgotten.
Project Ithaca, which boasts a clumsy, unfocused script from first time screenwriters Anthony Artibello and Kevin C. Bjerkness, is one of those thrillers where a bunch of people held captive in a room try to figure out the common link between them and why they’ve been chosen as abductees. Unfortunately, the reason given isn’t all that deep, and the mystery element of Project Ithaca turns out to be secondary to a much more interesting throughline that’s only barely followed through on.
The characters can all be summed up in simplistic descriptions: the hysterically scared one (Woods), the calm and analytical one (Gallanders), the creepy one (Campbell), the sympathetic one (Jones), the gruff one (Fathers), and the pissy one (Raynaud). The actors all hit their singular note rather well, especially Campbell, a Canadian indie movie star on the rise who deserves so much better than this. They’re especially good when one considers that they’re given nothing to work with. All they have to do here is curse, scream, speak with breathless terror, and dart their heads and eyes left to right to give the impression that something interesting or scary might be happening in a spot of the frame the viewer never gets to see. It’s not glamorous, but I can think of harder days at the office.
After a confusing and not altogether interesting or suspenseful opening twenty minutes, Project Ithaca launches into a lengthy explanation of the film’s science, and in the process outlines a story that sounds more interesting than the one the audience is ultimately getting. The story adds a bit of a time travelling element to the core mystery, and while it doesn’t make this any less of a Matrix/Saw rip-off (right down to the reveal of a villainous entity who seems to be a cross between the former film’s Oracle and the latter’s titular mass murderer), it does hint at a headier, vastly more intelligent set-up that the film can’t be bothered to actually show in great detail, so it forces Gallanders to deliver a seemingly endless verbal explanation while Humphries keeps doing the fast-paced, whooshing and flickering visual thing he seems to love so much. The backstory being explained is so much more fascinating, that it’s hard to stomach the notion that the producers of Project Ithaca would prefer to make this cynical, mostly single-stage and predominantly dual-chromatic cheapie than a movie that might’ve actually been somewhat engaging. The backstory does outline something that sounds far more expensive than sitting people down in single rooms and bunkers, and Project Ithaca seems to care about nothing more than keeping the cost down. (Even the film’s one effectively gory moment is laughably undone by the production’s inability to stage it with the proper and grotesque weight it needs to succeed.)
Project Ithaca keeps adding unnecessary wrinkles as it lumbers towards its thoroughly underwhelming and anticlimactic finale; one that makes me wonder if, at some point, someone thought this should be a television series instead. It’s written, performed, and directed almost like an improv exercise where someone can be heard in the wings whispering “yes, and…”. The outline of Project Ithaca, despite ripping off several other films shamelessly and wholesale, has flashes of intelligence, but it’s ultimately undone by its juvenile execution and an inability to convincingly create a world. It’s a bunch of 50s monster movie cheese crossed with late 90s/early aughts visuals told with a lot of unearned, self-important pretension. It’s hard to imagine anyone actually being entertained by something as passive and tiresome as Project Ithaca, but it didn’t have to be this way. There are some decent ideas in here, but they’re buried under mountains of goop, trashbags, and craft paper and drowned out by incessant sound effects and screams.
Project Ithaca opens in select Canadian and U.S. cities on Friday, June 7, 2019. It’s also available on VOD and digital platforms the same day.
Check out the trailer for Project Ithaca: