When Domain saunters into “The Twilight Zone” territory it becomes another in a long line of examples demonstrating why those shows topped out at half-an-hour in runtime.
In 1985, CBS relaunched “The Twilight Zone,” placing the groundbreaking property in the hands of luminaries of speculative fiction, including Harlan Ellison and George R.R. Martin. Given this pedigree, the show focused on story, using the era’s primitive CGI and penchant for scoring by synthesizer as sparingly as possible. Like so many genre shows of the time, the producers had to stretch every dollar passed to them by the stingy network. The look of the show often suffered because of it, but the writing was always so good most other deficiencies were easily forgiven.
Whether intended or not, Domain, written and directed by Nathaniel Atcheson, is a call-back to that show. It is post-apocalyptic fiction with a twist worthy of Rod Serling’s paradigm, and, to Atcheson’s credit, the film attempts earnest and salient commentary on some of the direr aspects of present-day America. The premise is established during the sound montage that plays during the opening credits. A deadly strand of influenza called the Saharan flu has reached pandemic proportions. Billions have died and the World Health Organization has barely finished work on a series of subterranean strongholds to house survivors.
The strongholds are Spartan and big enough for a single occupant. Five hundred thousand exist across the United States. A national lottery was created to fill each one fairly and the lucky tenants were sealed in thirty feet below the ground to wait for the flu to be eradicated. They are still waiting.
There is no outside world to contact, but each survivor becomes a part of a group of seven via video link. They constantly surveil each other because the cameras are never turned off. They elect leaders and the survivors practice the minutiae of society in an effort to stay sane. The people in the group at the center of the film don’t use their names anymore, instead substituting their locations as monikers. They are Phoenix (Britt Lower), Denver (Ryan Merriman), Boston (William Gregory Lee), Orlando (Kevin Sizemore), Houston (Nick Gomez), Atlanta (Sonja Sohn) and Chicago (Cedric Sanders). The film opens with Orlando, very much an abrasive, belligerent Florida man, getting voted out of the group.
Boston is something of a self-appointed leader who holds tightly to democracy. A momentous decision like excommunication requires a majority, but Phoenix, Atlanta and Chicago abstain. Orlando puts an end to debate by demanding to have his video feed extinguished, having tired of the others. None of this is protocol by the parameters of the “life support bunker” network, but Denver is a bit of a genius and has spent his years underground looking at source code. He knows a hack and grants Orlando his freedom. Shortly after, Houston’s bunker begins to glitch. Then members of the group begin to vanish. Phoenix tries to convince the others to abandon their bunkers and take their chances above ground, but where do you go when death is everywhere?
Both premise and plot are solid. The main challenge Atcheson has created for himself is one of visual dynamics. Almost all the action takes place in one of seven sterile bunkers and there’s not a great deal he can do with his camera to invigorate such a setting. The wall Phoenix sleeps against is the nicest visual touch. With a moon slowly morphing into the sun, it regulates the sleep cycle and also allows her to sleep virtually next to her would-be lover, Denver. The bunker itself is designed with a kind of corporate blandness, all pipes, ducts and furniture with multiple functions. The bunkers look like concept designs for the Dharma Initiative, but on a lower budget that brings it to “Twilight Zone” territory. The video monitors have that monochromatic ‘80s feel and Denver is constantly clacking on what looks like a keyboard to a Commodore 64. Even the uniforms the survivors wear hearken to a retro-futurism established somewhere around Logan’s Run. The effort designers made in films from decades earlier to imagine what the future might look like has become a stale shorthand now. The future looks like the past when society is about to crumble.
None of this is really the problem with the film. That lies more in the structure that the film attempts to serve. When the twist is presented, Domain saunters into “The Twilight Zone” and becomes another in a long line of examples demonstrating why those shows topped out at half-an-hour in runtime. There simply isn’t enough of interest happening to sustain the very good opening ten minutes and fascinating closing ten minutes. The ensuing hour-plus is just stretching a slim premise into a feature film. It’s a pity because, when all is revealed, the film asks apt questions about the nature of identity and forgiveness’ it just takes too long to get there to care about the answers. It’s not really the fashion for a fan of something to demand a recut of a film that shortens it, but that what’s required here. Call it the Serling cut, with an introduction by a well-dressed man smoking a cigarette.