If you find yourself feeling claustrophobic and a little loopy while watching ARQ, just imagine what it was like to make the new Netflix sci-fi thriller. There have been plenty of single-location movies and quite a few Groundhog Day-style reliving-the-same-day features, but ARQ combines both tropes into a cramped genre all its own.
Written and directed by Orphan Black and Hunters writer/story editor Tony Elliott, the film stars Robbie Amell (The Flash and Tomorrow People) as a scientist who, without fully realizing it, invents a limited-scope time machine. The audience doesn’t realize it at first, either, and it takes endless iterations of the same hellish day for Renton, his kinda-sorta ex-girlfriend Hannah (Rachael Taylor), and viewers to figure out what the hell is going on. The confusion is part of this machine.
“My tastes are to be given some mystery and fill things in, and just learn the story in the way that the characters do,” Elliott told Inverse at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered over the weekend. “It’s a better form of storytelling and people get more engaged that way instead of being spoon-fed.”
Here’s a cheat sheet for the movie, which cleverly avoids much early or direct exposition: Renton is an engineer who escaped the clutches of a massive and evil corporation bent on world domination. He is now in hiding while working diligently on the titular ARQ, a massive turbine engine that he believes can create an infinitely replenishing energy source. Some home invaders have orders to take the machine, though none of them know why at the outset.
As it turns out, the machine is more than a solution to our dependency on fossil fuels. It creates a closed time loop and transports Renton and Hannah back to the same moment each morning, which is actually super helpful, given that they’re dealing with the aforementioned home invaders.
The movie is, in effect, 10 versions of the same sequence of events, with the drama and bloodshed amped up as the story progresses. It all takes place in Renton’s small house, and in some ways, performing variations of the same scenes was far more challenging for Elliott and his actors than an epic, sprawling film would have been. The production team was required to re-dress each set — a shabby bedroom, garage, and living room — to look exactly the same, which created a mind-trip for everyone involved.
“Of course I lost track, we all did!” Elliott laughed, referring to the efforts required to keep the story straight. “I had a really strong command of the story because I wrote it and spent so many years with it, but in the mad rush of production, once that machine gets moving, it moves on its own and you’ve got to keep up. So we were like, ‘OK, now were back in the hallway, were in loop 5, what exactly do our characters know? What don’t they know? Emotionally, where are they at?’”
As much as was feasible on a low-budget spread across just 18 shooting days, they made the movie in chronological order. That was helpful, to some degree, as Amell and Taylor could keep track of what their characters knew. “I probably read the script close to 15 times before we started shooting,” Amell said, noting that his character had to deal with alliances and relationships that seemed to shift with every scene.
Each sequence was punctuated with Renton getting murdered, which made the beginning of the next go-round especially tricky to perform and differentiate.
“I remember the first day we were shooting, in the morning we did almost all of the wake-ups,” Amell said. “The first one was just the regular wake up, and then it was like, OK, I’d just been shot in the stomach. Another one I was shot in the throat. Then shot in the face. Each time was a little different. And it was like, where does it stop being horrifying and more annoying when we both wake up and yell ‘fuck!’”
Renton and Hannah do indeed vent their frustrations as the film progresses, though again, the loop is what keeps them from permanent death. Luckily, at 90 minutes with shifting alliances and slow-reveal twists, the film avoids becoming too much of a repetitive bore for the audience.
ARQ hits Netflix on September 16th.