Film criticism is more an art than a science — a deeply human endeavor to which we bring our own personal histories, our insights, our limits, and our baggage in what is, more than anything, an act of sublimated autobiography. What I’m getting at here is that I was running a little late to my screening of 65, and when I finally clambered into my seat in the dark, the movie had already started and I’d missed the first few minutes. Not ideal, but also not a situation that I would normally consider ruinous — except that 65 turned out to be the kind of movie in which a whole bunch of exposition is unloaded in its opening moments, and by the time I sat down, Adam Driver was on an otherworldly beach explaining expositionally to his wife that even though he was about to leave her and their daughter, Nevine (Chloe Coleman), for a long time, everything he was doing was for them. Driver’s character, Mills, is a spaceship pilot, and in the next scene, his long-haul ship encounters an asteroid that sends it crashing down into an uncharted planet. This planet is Earth at the end of the Cretaceous period, which sounds like it should be a spoiler, I know — a twist teased out over glimpses of the fauna menacing the characters, beasties gradually shown to be prehistoric rather than extraterrestrial in nature. But, with a bluntness that speaks of many stern studio notes, 65 tells us this information right alongside its title card, under which the words “million years ago a visitor crash landed on Earth” appear.
“Visitor” would appear to address the other key question I had throughout 65’s terse hour-and-a-half run time, which is this: Mills and his companion Koa (Ariana Greenblatt), the young girl who’s the ship’s only other survivor, are aliens, right? They’re not humans from the future who’ve time-traveled through some space anomaly and reverse–Planet of the Apes–ed themselves? This does not seem like it should be a difficult thing to answer in a movie made up almost entirely of two people trekking across the primordial landscape to an intact escape pod, and yet it turned out to be confounding. At no point during 65, which is the work of A Quiet Place writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, do Mills and Koa show the slightest recognition that the dinosaurs repeatedly trying to murder them are dinosaurs, which would be a point in the “aliens” column, or a sign that paleontology will fall drastically out of fashion in the millennia to come. And yet, if these characters are extraterrestrial, their advanced, ancient civilization — born out of a distant star system — is so exactly like ours as to feel indistinguishable, aside from niftier technology and a writing system that looks like a Wingdings font. Mills, played by Driver with disorienting naturalism, spends his time wallowing in regret about leaving his daughter before finding redemption through helping Koa, who doesn’t speak his language but who is conveniently close to his daughter in age. If there’s one quality that unites cultures across space and time, 65 suggests, it’s struggles with work-life balance.
“They are aliens, right?” I texted colleagues after leaving the screening and getting a burrito, a meal that I would not at all have been surprised to see Adam Driver fish out of a high-tech carrying case and eat during 65. One said yes, with the caveat that she’d seen it early enough that that might have changed — the movie has clearly been edited into oblivion, and there were rumors of multiple versions being A/B tested for audiences as late as last month. Another, who’d seen it later, assured me that the movie starts off with gobbledygook about civilizations exploring the cosmos before humankind and then establishes that beach scene as taking place on some other planet. But here’s the thing — the official production notes from Sony start like this: “After a cataclysmic crash on an unknown planet, pilot Mills (Adam Driver) quickly discovers he’s actually stranded on Earth … 65 million years ago.” But he does not discover this. Because he does not know what Earth is. And when I posed the same question to a studio representative as I had to friends, I was told something along the lines of “the answer is in your heart,” making me feel a warm sense of connection as I considered the possibility that the people involved in making, distributing, and marketing this motion picture shared my confusion.
65 is not good, if that even needs to be said. For something that involves almost nonstop dino action, it’s impressively unengaging, like watching a video game no one’s allowed to play. But its mangled badness is kind of compelling. At one point, in the midst of being attacked by a T. rex or something like it, some kind of bug crawls into Koa’s throat and makes her foam from the mouth while parked there like some nightmare tongue replacement, and Mills calmly kills the thing, and it’s never mentioned before or after. What the fuck was that? Mills gets a serious abdominal injury early on and keeps it secret from Koa, but then it never comes up, and he also pops a dislocated shoulder back in and sustains plenty of other body blows and head injuries. And yet he’s fine? Maybe because he’s of a species that’s identical to humans in every way except that they’re sturdier. When the movie ends, and this constitutes less a spoiler than an anti-spoiler, we get the 65 answer to the shot at the end of Gangs of New York, with a dinosaur carcass on a ruined landscape giving way, over time-lapsed eons, to a plain, then to a settlement, and then to a modern city. In a movie that didn’t start off by telling us it was taking place on Earth, this might be the final reveal, an aha moment that makes the context of the title clear — but it isn’t. In a movie that was going for some Chariots of the Gods shit, Mills and Koa might have unintentionally left the seeds of what would become humanity — but they don’t. What was this movie originally going for that it attracted a star like Driver and producer Sam Raimi? The answer, my friends, is in your hearts.