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Arcadian Film Review: Saves the Best for Last

Nicolas Cage and his character's two children look in front of them from a vantage point in the film Arcadian

Though the ambiguity in Arcadian leaves too many questions unanswered, the film’s creature design and lively third act are worth a trip to the cinema.

If you’re like me, seeing the name Nicolas Cage on a cast list is all it takes to pique your interest in a film. What also impresses me is the vast number of movies he stars in annually. Each project is unique, as he brings varying vibrant characters to life. Cage’s latest feature, Arcadian, follows a father and his two twin sons as they navigate a post-apocalyptic existence. To further complicate things, monstrous creatures now inhabit the earth. Though their origin remains a mystery, they’re a daily threat to the universe’s remaining human survivors.

In the film’s opening scene, a frazzled Paul (Cage) frantically runs home. The world is in turmoil, and he appears to be one of the few survivors. When Paul finally reaches safety, viewers are introduced to his twin newborns. He raises the pair in a farmhouse, and the chaotic existence surrounding them is all that his sons Joseph (Jaeden Martell, of Knives Out) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins, of Lost in Space) have ever known. The absence of a mother figure hints that she may have perished, and the thought of the countless human casualties that have taken place is devastating. Being forced to live out the rest of your days on guard with little human interaction is unimaginable.

During the first act, Arcadian is overflowing with intrigue as suspense builds. Though daylight hours appear to be a relatively normal existence for the family, if ever Paul, Thomas, and Joseph leave their dwelling, they always rush home before dusk, as that’s when the monsters come out to play. Arcadian’s creature design is the film’s highlight, though there’s much ambiguity surrounding the monsters. Viewers are never informed where these snapping entities originated from or how this post-apocalyptic world came to be. That’s not to say that an imprecise approach can’t work. It certainly heightens the mystery throughout Arcadian’s first act and keeps viewers invested in what could be revealed later in the narrative.

However, the issue is that this vagueness extends to other areas of the story, and there are too many gaps in the foundation. The result is a thinly developed storyline and a sense of unfulfillment as the plot is never quite rich enough for one to fully sink one’s teeth into. Instead, a lot of the runtime is spent watching the family encounter various obstacles that hinder their safety. Each incident puts them in the creatures’ line of fire, but the film’s indefinite backstory diminishes the stakes.

Nicolas Cage and Maxwell Jenkins walk in the garden of a house, alarmed, in the film Arcadian
Nicolas Cage and Maxwell Jenkins in Benjamin Brewer’s ARCADIAN, an RLJE Films and Shudder Release. (RLJE Films & Shudder)

Arcadian shows Cage’s versatility and talent as an actor as he takes on the role of Paul, a dedicated father who will ensure the protection of his twin sons at any cost. This is a grounded performance for the star, as he reflects Paul’s nurturing nature and encouraging spirit. However, Cage assumes a subordinate role compared to that of Jenkins and Martell, who take center stage. In short, this is a story based on two brothers navigating a world of uncertainty and carnage as they exercise their dad’s teachings to stay alive. The two brothers don’t always see eye to eye, and a slight rivalry exists between the pair, though a profound mutual care lives at the core of their relationship.

The brothers are also vastly different, and their contrasting personalities reflect the sibling dynamics that can exist within families. Their approach to everyday life showcases their distinctive characteristics in a bewildering universe full of uncertainties. Joseph is the quieter of the two, but he’s sensible, obedient, and smart, surprising his family with inventions and research designed to aid the family in understanding the monsters more and figuring out where they sprung from and how they function.

Thomas is more of a risk-taker and ventures outside during daylight hours whenever the opportunity presents itself to visit his crush, Charlotte (Sadie Soverall, of Saltburn). Jenkins is given more material to work with, as Thomas’ romance with Charlotte is a glimmer of humanity in a bleak world. It holds an emotional weight, and you hope to see the pair make it out alive. Joseph is a less-developed character, and quite a few of his scenes are spent with him alone. I do wish they had dedicated more screen time to Joseph and Thomas alongside one another. At times, the narrative coasts along as they do their own thing, and there isn’t enough dialogue exchanged between the two to make their sibling relationship fully convincing.

Thankfully, Arcadian does somewhat redeem itself during its third act. There is a shift in gear and a transformation into a fast-paced, fully-fledged creature spectacle. Haunting scenes display exactly what these monstrous beings are capable of, and their behaviors and unique looks are executed exceptionally well. Even if Arcadian leaves you somewhat disappointed throughout the journey, the film’s final 30 minutes will lure you back in. If you’re a fan of creature features, Arcadian is worth a watch for the creature design alone. It’s unlike anything I have seen previously and is sure to satisfy. I just wish we got to spend more time with these freakish monsters and were provided answers to some critical unanswered questions.

Arcadian was screened at the Overlook Film Festival on April 5, 2024 and will be released in US theaters on April 12. Read our reviews of recent Nicolas Cage films Dream Scenario, The Retirement Plan, Butcher’s Crossing, and Sympathy for the Devil.

Arcadian: Trailer (RLJE Films)
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