In the new horror film They Remain, a pair of scientists conducting research in isolation suddenly find themselves in a desperate struggle against a horrifying descent into madness. As it turns out, truth is stranger than fiction in this science-fiction horror. Loosely based on real stories about scientists losing grip on reality, director Philip Gelatt’s film attempts to manifest the dangers of loneliness and routine into something far more chilling to the bone.
The film stars Rebecca Henderson and William Jackson Harper (of NBC’s The Good Place) as Jessica and Keith, two animal scientists tasked with studying the fauna native to grounds previously inhabited by a religious cult. Whatever happened there, it leads the two down a path of which there’s no return.
In a phone interview with Inverse ahead of the film’s May 29 Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD release, Gelatt revealed the origins of his sophomore effort (following his 2011 debut The Bleeding House). Prior to writing the script, the director met with scientists who told him stories about being in the wilderness and “staring at animals for such a long time humanity itself didn’t make visual sense.” Gelatt mentioned one story in particular, of a scientist who studied walruses for so long he failed to comprehend his human colleagues standing right in front of him.
“One day he saw his partner walking towards him and he says, ‘That doesn’t make sense at all.’” explained Gelatt. After an endless cycle of routine and study, human beings had ceased to make sense for them.
Gelatt admitted he only wanted to keep “the science science-fictional” — with production design utilizing domed structures and the visual language of “just endlessly searching for something” — but there is hard data to back up Gelatt’s inspirations. Numerous studies have explored the negative impact of isolation upon a person’s mental and physical health. A more recent study from 2017, conducted on mice and published by Cell, concluded that prolonged isolation also leads to higher levels of anxiety “including increased aggression and persistent responses to threats.” Sensory deprivation, in which victims are removed of stimuli, can also lead to hallucinations. That’s what American writer Sarah Shourd endured when she was kept in an Iranian prison for 14 months.
“I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there,” Shourd wrote for the New York Times in 2011. “At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face … that I realized the screams were my own.”
They Remain is a horror movie that makes a monster out of nothingness; it’s Lord of the Flies by way of H.P. Lovecraft. Throughout the film, both of its main characters become irritable, paranoid, and unstable as their study drags on for ad infinitum. Their transformation speaks to They Remain’s secret genre, a workplace satire where bottom-rung employees’ suffering is merely collateral damage to the bottom line. The shift in character also leads Harper, as Keith, to become unrecognizable from his popular, wholesome image as the afterlife’s most ethical resident, Chidi, on The Good Place.
Unlike Chidi, who is “all neuroses and indecision and a lot of words all the time,” Keith is reticent and stoic — character traits that Harper identifies more with. “I wish I had the guts to be the person that doesn’t care if he’s making you comfortable,” Harper told Inverse, “The guy that’s looking at you in the eye and not saying anything but holding that gaze for an uncomfortably long time because he’s taking you in. I was drawn to that.”
Creatively, They Remain is a new direction of science-fiction for Gelatt, who, in the aftermath of his screenplay Europa Report — a hard sci-fi directed by Sebastián Cordero in 2013 — sought to ease up on accuracy and go deeper into simply scaring his audience. “It’s really hard to write stuff that is scientifically accurate,” Gelatt says. “For this, I tried to make it poetically scientific.”
“The specifics of the science I can’t say much about other than I wanted it to be all about this endless act looking for something that is hard to find,” the director said. “On my part, the byword of the film is ambiguity, making the viewer pay attention and wonder what they are looking for.”
They Remain is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.