‘Arcadian’ Review: Nicolas Cage Headlines a Post-Apocalyptic Drama That Rarely Lives Up to Its Potential

In Benjamin Brewer’s Arcadian, the Earth’s soundscape is full of signs. The rustling leaves and frenetic bird calls are the noises of daylight’s safety, whereas the stillness of the night warns of threats. Brewer’s film harnesses the uneasy tension of a post-apocalyptic reality where no one knows what happened at the end of the world.

Premiering at SXSW, Arcadian observes Paul (Nicolas Cage) and his two sons, Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) and Joseph (Jaeden Martell), navigating life in a recognizable but quieter version of Earth. Their routines rarely vary. In the morning, they forage around the forest for wood; salvage scrapes from ruined ships in abandoned ports; and run other errands around the house. At night, they say a prayer over dinner and check the locks. A cracked window or a door left ajar is an invitation for the monsters — impressively designed creatures with black veiny flesh and heads shaped like Venus flytraps. There’s a tenderness to these scenes, which show the varying levels of intimacy within the family.

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Outside of this trio’s homestead is a relatively unknown world. There’s the Rose Farm a few miles away, a fortified community where Thomas’ crush Charlotte (Saltburn’s Sadie Soverall) lives with her parents (played by Samantha Coughlan and Joe Dixon). A central tension of Arcadian, written by Mike Nilon, concerns Thomas repeatedly neglecting his responsibilities to visit Charlotte. One day, while racing home to meet Joseph, whom he ditched earlier, Thomas slips and falls into a giant crack in the ground. His father comes looking for him and the two spend a harrowing evening trying to avoid the monsters. A near fatal encounter with one of them leaves Paul, who tried to scare them away with fire, badly burned and half-conscious. It’s up to his sons to help him heal while protecting the house.

With a lean screenplay, Arcadian doesn’t offer all that much in the way of plot or world building. The lack of context can be frustrating, inspiring questions about this new world order. There’s a part of the film that leans into not-knowing, and argues that the end won’t come with a handbook. In one strong scene, Thomas and Charlotte play a game in which they must hypothesize about a pre-apocalyptic society. Although there is a cleverness and realism to this moment — clearly older generations don’t talk about what happened before, leaving their kids in the dark — it doesn’t absolve the film of having to offer audiences more background information.

Lots of details indeed remain shrouded in mystery in Arcadian, including Paul’s personality and his relationship to his sons. Cage does his best in a role that doesn’t give him enough to work with. After the accident leaves him in a coma, one wonders about who Paul was before the apocalypse. Did he have community? A partner? A hobby?

Most of Arcadian’s potential lies in its performances (including compelling turns from Martell and Soverall) and the design of the monsters. Joseph’s shyness and generally reserved attitude transforms into an understated confidence as he tries to more seriously study these haunting creatures. Similarly to Cage, Soverall has a relatively thin role but the actress makes do. She and Jenkins have good chemistry, which energizes their nascent romance. As the two teenagers get to know each other, the viewer’s desire for more specificity in Arcadian’s world building may re-emerge. Nilon’s story raises some fascinating class tensions between Thomas’ family and Charlotte’s, for example, but they’re not satisfying to explore without a better understanding of the disorganized and scattered society that is their backdrop.

What’s clear in Arcadia is that Brewer, who worked on Everything Everywhere All At Once as the lead visual effects artist and most recently co-wrote Reptile, is an assured director. One of the strongest moments in the film is the creature reveal. A wide shot shows Joseph, using himself as bait, sitting in an armchair stationed in the middle of the room. A slimy hand slowly comes through the unlocked mail slot in the door and inches across the screen until it’s nearly touching him. It outstretches its finger and then the nail begins to grow, closing the gap between the monster and the slumbering kid’s face. The near-perfect moment — Brewer builds tension, cuts it slightly with humor and ends on a triumphant note — shows that even as Arcadian struggles to find its footing, it’s capable of landing some knockout moments.

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