A rainy night spent at a grimy, green-tinted bus station requires a definitive soundtrack. When paranoia is at its peak—as it was in 1968 Mexico, with government agents mowing down unarmed students who were protesting what they saw as an oppressive regime—that soundtrack needs to be unsettling and frightening while the rain pelts the bus station windows. That’s how writer-director Isaac Ezban’s latest film, The Similars, opens, with stringed instruments performing a symphony of bombastic dread (like Bernard Herrmann at his most distrustful of humanity) while a small group of stranded passengers and station employees wait for delayed buses that can’t make it through what they quickly learn is something paranormal in nature: a global hurricane causing bizarre and seemingly apocalyptic behavior in the insane climate of the late-1960s world.

Ezban is chained (not merely indebted) to the conventions of the era he wishes to represent, a tense period of Mexican history and a time of transition in genre filmmaking. Like the schlocky science fiction films that came before Stanley Kubrick classed up the joint with 2001: A Space Odyssey in the same year in which this film is set, The Similars presents its high concept bluntly and clumsily, stuttering its way to a conclusion with characters that feel like first drafts of people—they aren’t even quite caricatures. When touched by the rain, these stranded people begin to turn into each other in comically literal ways, hence the title. It begins with Ulises (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), a man who desperately needs to get back from his job at the mine out in the boonies in order to attend the birth of his twin children in the city. His bus is stuck in the mysterious rain and Ulises, a heavily bearded man with hair that would not look out of place atop the head of a British Invasion band member, grows increasingly histrionic in his limited payphone conversations with his distraught father-in-law. Joining him at the start are the eight-months-pregnant Irene (Cassandra Ciangherotti), station manager Martín (Fernando Becerril) and a spooky native woman who cannot speak Spanish (María Elena Olivares) who sits in a corner and seems to cast spells—this turns suspicious eyes her way as things begin to turn wacky.

The Similars spends large chunks of its runtime gleefully flopping around in camp like a pig in mud. Ulises’ hirsute look is replicated on the faces of everyone. Lumpy, globby makeup and bunches of hair grow out of the heads of those who come in contact with him. Posters of Sean Connery-era James Bond films, models in nudie magazines and pictures of beloved family members all begin to resemble the soon-to-be father. It is grotesque to look at, and nobody is pleased about the fact that their bodies are changing without explanation. It’s meant to be funny, and perhaps in another situation it would be, but the visual joke wears thin. Ezban recovers at times with a clever, cinematic use of radio news reports about how this exact phenomenon is happening all over the world (everyone turning into Ulises), including digs at talk-radio hosts who jump to wild conclusions—this, too, grows old after repeated use.

The camp factor dooms The Similars because it is so intermittent, rendering the gags toothless. The film cannot decide what it wants to be, creating shifts in tone that appear out of nowhere with no motivation. It may have its moments of profound silliness, but it turns on a dime to reach for profound heights, mostly about the perverseness of human nature leading us to kill each other despite our many similarities. Watered down absurdity is a half-measure that provides a brief, quickly extinguished smirk rather than a sustained belly laugh. Following this tone, characters important to the resolution of the plot appear without being properly introduced. They simply show up, like harried mother Gertrudis (Carmen Beato) and her freakish son Ignacio (Santiago Torres), a kid with a contraption hanging from his neck through which his mother injects giant syringes full of goopy white stuff—he acts like a castoff from Village of the Damned, so you know he’s untrustworthy even before he starts constantly spouting the refrain, “All innocents should be arrested.”

As a matter of practical filmmaking, The Similars follows the path set by its narrative clunkiness. Ezban and production designer Patricia De Burgos nail the sparse look of the cheapo sci-fi films from the time, like 1957’s The Night the World Exploded. The bus station is big and full of empty space, and cinematographer Isi Sarfati’s camera rolls through the set slowly and steadily in the no-frills way that mirrors that particular era’s movies—they even nail the scratchy look of dust and cigarette burns on old film reels by using digital effects. However, they don’t use the camera to map out the station ahead of time, which means bathrooms, offices and hallways feel totally disconnected from the public waiting area where most of the action takes place. It is jarring when characters go into those spaces and leave the viewer totally unaware of what’s happening, like one logical shortcut too many.

What at times resembles the start of an all-goofy, all-spoofy lark through science fiction genre conventions slips too often into melodrama without knowing which instinct is more important for the story that The Similars wants to tell.

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