Movie Review: “Risen” (2021)

I think that 2016’s “Arrival” and 2018’s “Annihilation” are two of the best “thinking” sci-fi/alien movies that we’ve gotten in a long while. These are movies that make you question what you’re seeing; they’re movies that make you instantly want to go back and rewatch them. They force you to stop and contemplate. Backed by great performances, they’re tremendous. With this year’s “Risen,” you can see where it might fit into the same sort of “thinking sci-fi” genre, but the results are not as good.

Written and directed by Eddie Arya, “Risen” stars Nicole Schalmo as Lauren Stone, a NASA scientist who is called in to examine the location where a meteorite has landed in northern Pennsylvania. Stone is something of an enigma for much of the movie – she stays quiet and lets those around her, including fellow scientist David Santiago (Kenneth Trujillo), do most of the talking. There is clearly something going on with Stone, but whether it’s her issues with alcohol or something more is unclear.

We spend much of the movie attempting to read Stone’s body language. We examine her facial expressions and try to find clues. We do everything we can to piece together what is going on in her mind as some of the dead bodies from this Pennsylvania town, Badger, come back to life… or at the very least sit up and all face the same direction.

Over the course of the film, which runs less than two hours but feels significantly longer, question after question after question arises. These certainly go beyond Stone, but whether they stay small or grow into larger ideas about humanity and our place in the galaxy, rarely do they ever become truly interesting.

On more than one occasion, a plot point or a sequence will make little sense, making “Risen” one of those many movies which forces the audience to stop and wonder if we’re in for a conclusion that ties everything together or are just going to be left to suffer through. As is so often the case with such a film (and as I’ve written recently), the answer isn’t important – if the movie prompts that many questions about what is taking place and pulls the audience out of story as we wonder about the answers, it doesn’t succeed.

Unfortunately, this particularly work of science fiction isn’t helped by the dialogue, which is stilted on more than one occasion.  Further hindering matters, several members of the cast attempt to hide their accents with middling (at best) success.

It isn’t that “Risen” is fully lacking in terms of interesting ideas. It isn’t that the movie doesn’t have something worthwhile at its core. Just because other movies about aliens arriving on this planet exist doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for another entry. Humanity can only be helped by the notion of looking to the stars and wondering what is out there. And, even if that weren’t the case, it would be silly to believe that all the worthwhile possibilities have already been examined. No, these questions of how we would react to a potential alien arrival—be it peaceful or hostile—are fascinating and the answers legion. The problem is that the way in which “Risen” explores the idea isn’t terribly engaging and is helped neither by the dialogue, nor the acting, nor the manner in which the plot unfolds.

When the movie does tie things up at the end, it becomes clear that there is something far more interesting, far more intricate, going on than what we have been offered. A movie that offers up that perspective throughout might work.  This particularly movie, however, might present ideas worth thinking about but largely does not.

photo credit: Vertical Entertainment

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