Imagine you wake up from your cryostasis, jolted into lucidity by the ship computer telling you a collision is imminent. You sober up rapidly and, propelled by a sense of duty mixed with well-trained reflexes, you make your way to the cockpit with a hope of successfully navigating through a swarm of asteroids. You fail. You were never meant to succeed anyway, but that’s beside the point. You must find a place to crash land and you therefore divert the ship towards the nearest planet.
As you approach, the ship comes apart. The cargo is lost together with many people blissfully frozen in cryostasis.
Crash. You black out.
You are finally able to open your eyes. You check your surroundings, make sure you are not injured. Nothing special. Just a few scratches. You grab your pulse rifle and don your EVA suit. You step outside of the ship to discover a lush jungle. Hoping to contact anybody, you find the nearest hill. You send out an SOS message into the aether of space detailing what happened and giving precise coordinates of this uncharted planet.
Then, you hear a roar somewhere in the distance and you realize this planet is inhabited by animal life. What you are soon to find out is that you landed on Earth 65 million years before human civilization took hold. You landed on a planet ruled by dinosaurs.
This is where the tutorial ends and you discover the first quest in your log book. But – having completed the tutorial and the introductory mission – you deserve a tiny bio break. So you pause the game and go to the bathroom.
At least, this is how I imagine 65 could look like if its central narrative was converted into what it was organically the most suitable for – a video game. Unfortunately, this movie is not a video game, which immediately puts a ceiling on whatever potential this story could have. And that’s because as far as video game story treatments go, 65 would probably be able to survive on the back of its immersive gameplay, or the gimmick of setting effectively a super soldier armed with high-tech weaponry in a world inhabited by giant reptiles; which has already been a subject of a video game titled Turok way back in the day. However, it is not a game so the viewer is completely unable to participate in the experience and is thus forced to passively observe as Adam Driver is doing all the playing and immersing on their behalf. Which, admittedly, isn’t anywhere near as fun as doing the button-mashing yourself.
This leaves the viewer to seek entertainment elsewhere, i.e. in the story, world-building, characters and whatever personal dramas propel them through time and space, apart from external stimuli of having to respond to threats by shooting bullets and using technology essentially indistinguishable from magic to disintegrate their otherwise terrifying-looking foes. And this is where the problem is because if this movie was a video game, you’d be more than welcome to excuse its narrative shortcomings, frequent reliance on clichés and shorthand, or blatant distillations of other elements of popular culture embedded within the narrative for shits and giggles. It’s quite frankly astonishing how narrative originality can be whittled down in exchange for immersive gameplay experience, as human attention and focus can only encompass a finite amount of detail at any given point in time.
But 65 is not a game, I hate to stress this enough. It’s a movie and there is a reason why movies can serve as bases for successful and thriving video games, while video games extremely rarely (if at all) can be transposed into successful movies. In fact, the storytellers in charge of putting together this film may have been aware of this simple fact of life and they knowingly stacked the deck in their favour by imbuing the narrative with elements known to have endeared people in the past.
Therefore, this isn’t necessarily a coincidence that the main character Mills (Adam Driver) is accompanied by a little girl Koa (Ariana Greenblatt), as it is a clear attempt to capitalize on the clout of The Last of Us, and by extension, on a multitude of post-apocalyptic narratives already embedded in the culture, such as The Road, A Quiet Place, It Comes at Night, or even the widely forgotten M. Night Shyamalan vehicle After Earth, which is similarly geared to slot into the same groove of cliché-laden videogame storytelling. In fact, the entire narrative is best seen as a conglomeration of already pre-existing ideas cobbled together to manufacture an immersive four-dimensional experience. Problem is, immersiveness in here can only be achieved by proxy, as though we were watching a Youtuber or a Twitch streamer playing this videogame in our stead… which is just not as fun.
From here, the viewer has only two logical paths to pursue: you can either choose to actively detest everything you’ll see unfold before your eyes, or to adjust your expectations and make the best of what you have. I believe you’d be well within your rights to walk out of this movie because there is very little originality in here to behold and as far as the spectacle goes, 65 just can’t hold the candle to its blockbuster competitors, despite its best intentions. The infrequent skirmishes Adam Driver’s character has with surprisingly un-diversely modelled dinosaurs don’t ever wow with their scale or petrify with perceived threat. Equally, the entire set-up of conveniently nesting the story within the short timeframe of hours before a massive asteroid smashed into the Earth and exterminated 99% of life on the planet, will look comically false and downright ridiculous to anyone who chooses to watch this movie with their arms crossed.
But you don’t have to do that. You can instead just agree that what you are watching is not Star Wars and that there is a ceiling on its artistic potential. But you paid good money to see it and – by Jove – you might as well make the most of it. To achieve that, you have but one recourse – to grab onto the central relationship between Mills and Koa and hold onto dear life as you contextualize their perilous journey through the hostile environs of an Earth doomed to be wiped out in twenty-four hours or less. As you choose to do so you might also discover that – trite as it may be – the little human drama underpinning the narrative somehow endears, simply because the character motivations propelling Mills are fundamentally human. Say what you want about the movie being wholly unoriginal, derivative and top-heavy with clichés, but I found some base-level enjoyment in following a grieving father as he is doing his level best to save a girl he can barely communicate with, as though to drown out the guilt of not being there for his own daughter in her darkest hour.
In simplest terms, 65 is just about a mediocre piece of science-fiction that often finds its way into the cinemas during the graveyard months between the Awards season and the onset of the Summer blockbuster invasion. Understandably, its allure is not found in the realm of its spectacle as this is where the movie can only disappoint. It just doesn’t have the chops to overcome the limitations of its derivative world-building and narrative convenience by way of suspending the viewer’s disbelief. Its hail Mary pass is its ‘little drama’ internalized within Adam Driver’s performance, who takes his role with requisite seriousness. But this father-daughter drama may only work on dads in the room, so don’t hold my feet to the fire if it doesn’t do much for you. All I can do is report how I felt, and I survived this movie by holding onto this miniaturized parental tragedy, which made the surrounding festival of cliché just about bearable.
Therefore, it is a mistake to go to see 65 with high-flung expectations. This movie just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny if examined using a typical blockbuster yardstick. It’s nothing more than a treatment concocted by someone who never read a book and whose knowledge of popular culture comes exclusively from ingesting videogame narratives. I could expect a teenager to write a story of similar thematic and narrative complexity. But even though this theoretical teenager with a typewriter had no idea that most of his ideas were regurgitated from works he never knew he could pick up in his local library, he managed to give his story a heartbeat, perhaps inadvertently, because that one game he really loved about that guy and a girl making their way through a post-apocalyptic wasteland of some kind also had a heart. So, I am not going to judge: transplanted or not, a heartbeat is a heartbeat. It’s not strong or particularly rhythmic. But it’s there. Everything else is an afterthought.