Alfred Hitchcock emphasized film as a visual medium above all else — a teaching that has developed a nearly cult-like reverence. 65, the newest film from writer-director duo Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, is a genre apart from the Master of Suspense but clearly worships from that same church. The Adam Driver-starring thriller is a lean, mean exercise in sci-fi suspense set far in our planetary past (if only by sheer misadventure).
Mills (Adam Driver) is a pilot shepherding a large group of spacebound passengers when the trip goes awry, ripping the ship apart and scattering it across an unknown planet. As it turns out, two passengers survive — Mills and a young woman named Koa (Ariana Greenblatt). We soon discover that the pair landed on Mesozoic-era Earth (unbeknownst to them) with only one possibility of escape. Beside the sci-fi technology and the existence of violent dinosaurs, at its core, 65 is a simple survival tale about a makeshift family: a pilot and young girl set against a monstrous world, with the ticking clock of a comet propelling their trek forward.
In some ways, 65 resembles a variety of media that have come before. The Jurassic Park/World comparisons are inevitable, with slices of the narrative feeling kin to such sci-fi classics. But just because the idea is familiar doesn’t mean it’s a poorly conceived or executed one. Part of the familiarity of 65 lies in the fact that the concept is so good that it honestly should have been made a half-dozen times before. The setting allows our protagonists to be set in a world emotionally familiar, yet unrecognizable and thoroughly hostile.
Though Driver is well known for his skill at outburst-laden roles (think of all those viral gifs of Kylo Ren smashing consoles or Charlie Barber hitting a wall), 65 ably showcases his skill at emotional subtlety. Mills and Koa are on board the same ship, but they don’t speak the same language and the pair repeatedly struggle to build effective communication and emotional trust in a hostile world. It adds well to the isolation of both, and gives Driver a chance to showcase his skills at a non-verbal performance. Similarly, Greenblatt spends the role speaking a language not of this planet, effectively only having subtle tools to emote and transmit her character’s meanings. She gives a wonderful performance under those difficult conditions.
Everything about 65 is tight. There’s little inessential in the narrative, no surplus dialogue (to whom would our protagonists speak?), and only plot-driven exposition. The shot choice is well designed to build tension, carefully using the frame to hide the danger until it’s too late. The often-tight frame keeps the focus on our protagonists more often than not, which does well to enhance the film’s building suspense. That said, there are times where wider shots would have helped situate the viewer, or slightly longer cuts in a given scene would have let the tension linger. At times, it’s too lean, but that’s a preferable vice in a world full of overlong films stretching over 2.5 hours.
The dinosaurs look good on screen and are used well, if somewhat sparsely. The narrative promises survival against dinos and largely delivers, though the emergent emotional father-daughter narrative and the ticking clock of the comet are unexpectedly a larger focus. Both elements work, but with the dinosaurs being a key element of the promised story, one can’t help but desire a little more high-stakes action from our planet’s former rulers.
65 is not without its curious plot contrivances, however. There are times when Koa has vast leaps in her understanding of a situation or language, and knows precisely what to do when it’s oddly convenient. The premise of the ship crashing on Earth exactly when The Comet is going to hit is a fun way to showcase one of Earth’s most monumental eras, but it’s also a tad convenient that the protagonists hit that specific time period out of Earth’s whole billion-year history. Overall, however, 65’s lean narrative is a virtue, generating a tight story that works well.
The film isn’t exactly the dinosaur extravaganza one might be expecting, though that’s present to a relevant degree. At its core, the film is a tight story focusing on the growing familial relationship between a pair of protagonists who have no one else, in a world full of monsters. The performances are strong, the script is lean and largely successful, the dinosaurs look good, and it sticks the landing. It could strangely enough use a slightly longer runtime, but 65 remains a tight sci-fi thriller, and one worth an audience’s time.
65 opens in theaters on March 10.