Atomica was directed by Dagen Merrill (Broken Hill, Murder in the Dark), written by Kevin Burke (Beneath, Ninjago), Adam Gyngell (White Dragon, Chasing Shadows), and Federico Fernandez-Armesto (The Dead Ones, G’Day USA) and stars Sarah Habel (Riverdale, Hostel: Part III), Dominic Monaghan (I Sell the Dead, Soldiers of Fortune), and Tom Sizemore (Passenger 57, Damon’s Revenge). It follows a safety inspector who arrives to check up on a nuclear power plant only to get caught in a question of the identities and intentions of the staff.
The Plot: Utilitarianism in stories tends to be reserved for post-apocalyptic or dystopian settings, so it’s interesting to see the writers of this script go for a slightly more optimistic – though no less deceptive – placement for a creative narrative like Atomica.
Auxilisun is a nuclear power corporation that rebounded the world from a global energy shortage via a “tri-fission reactor” that now powers over 90 percent of the world. While benevolence is feigned with advertisements, Abby (Habel) finds that the largest power plant has gone offline and no one but her is willing to figure out why. Upon arrival, she’s greeted with skepticism from Robinson (Monaghan) and absence from the other staffer. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that the place isn’t holding up well, and Abby begins to fix up the communication systems before getting to the rest of the facility.
With her attempt to fix the communications, she finds that the entire facility is low on power, which seems like something that she should catch onto quicker than she does, but it does move her to a lab and get her to reference “deep burial”, a restricted area where nuclear waste is recycled for more power to Robinson, who admits that the scientist goes there anyway. A lot of the second act is devoted to wondering, but the halfway mark brings Zek (Sizemore) into the picture, which starts a battle between the two resident employees, one of whom is intent on exposing the flaws in the technology, and maybe something more.
It can meander for short stretches, but the uniquity of putting the focus on manual repair and the basics of a company makes for an investing story that really shouldn’t be, based on the idea.
The Characters: Two good characters inhabit the power plant and one who’s just passable. Performances add more than what’s on the page though, and without the three selected cast members, the characters would be duller, and exchanges made lifeless.
Abby is an upstanding worker at the Auxilisun corporation, frequently going to bat whenever Robinson criticizes the work ethic of the company and justifying the state of the power plant. This is all she has aside from two dogs at home, clearly because she’s a workaholic and not much for small talk. Her trust in her employer does begin to crack as Atomica goes on, with evidence turning up about a cover-up by the energy providers and the sheer level of decay becoming hard to argue. An arc of realization is simple but effective; more effective than a series of flashbacks to a dying grandmother that doesn’t go anywhere.
Robinson is a twitchy fellow, constantly finding something to do with his hands, whether that’s strumming a guitar or hitting golf balls within the plant. Not only is he a recently recovered drug addict, but he’s been at the compound for quite some time, which explains his odd behavior. He does his job with the bare minimum level of effort, possibly due to his troubled upbringing, or maybe he’s just complacent. Interestingly, he doesn’t have much interaction with Zek and doesn’t much care to change that. Robinson is full of anecdotes and is acceptably rationalized, making for a good, shifty character to watch.
Zek doesn’t appear for the first half of Atomica, but there’s work done from outside conversation to develop an image before he shows his face. From the environment, we see that he keeps plant life on his desk and different books too. The movie sets him up to be knowledgeable but offers questions about how he uses said intelligence in his place of work.
Abby and Robinson make up for most of the character work, and they serve Atomica well as different representations of the company they work for. One’s devoted and unquestioning and the other is slack and cautious. Their dynamic’s gradual shift keeps the movie moving.
The Mystery: Merrill’s film hinges on its questions about motives, locations, and mental stability; all of which are the best assets of the movie. It delivers different pieces of a grander puzzle individually, though it can feel overly segmented before pushing them together for the final minutes.
Immediately after entering the Gibson Desert North facility, Atomica presents its two leading questions but places one before the other. Answering the question of Robinson’s place in the company comes first, with the man attributing his own oddity to a condition he calls “Sensory Deprivation Psychosis” which entails seeing and hearing things that aren’t there after being stuck in a windowless facility, followed by colorful rants and eventual breakdowns. It’s a logical step that has more merit than Abby wants to give credit, as she is soon having more nightmares about her past that waives the doubt cast on Robinson for the time leading up to the end.
“Deep burial” is the catalyst for most of the movie’s questions. Since it’s locked away except for those with the highest level of security clearance, it makes the proposition that Zek made his way into the area in a company-endorsed manner confounding. With the design of the facility including a large fan that cools the system, which itself stops working not long after Zek returns to the plant, Atomica facilitates questions about his goals in the setting with this quandary, snapped cables, and his time in the irradiated area surrounding it.
These questions are answered quicker than expected, but they lead to a verbal battle between the two men with Abby in the middle, left to dig deeper (pun if you want it) into both of the men’s identities to answer her question surrounding why the facility is offline in the first place.
It takes a little too long for these ideas to merge since the person who can give a degree of clarity is missing for 40 minutes, but both facets succeed on their own levels and come together to make an enjoyable reveal and conclusion.
The Technics: Syfy movies aren’t generally known for quality in their craftsmanship; only affording $2 million (to the luckiest of helmers) to come up with an idea that will draw interest. Normally this results in outings like “Mansquito”, but Merrill and company beat the odds to make an above-average film.
Atmosphere is a huge part of the success of Atomica, as the decision to film in an old missile silo gives contrast to the image that Auxilisun projects to the public versus the reality of their revenue sources. They aren’t a malicious company, but they neglect to keep up what can’t be seen on camera. The dark corridors of the Gibson North plant are dimly lit with blue and orange lighting that fits right in with the tone of the movie, which is kept moody thanks to the way that Timothy A. Burton (Pet, Drunk Parents) shoots the scenes.
Shortcomings from the budget aren’t entirely avoided, as some CGI in the opening is subpar, as is a radiation-preventing suit that’s clearly just a modified motorcycle helmet and jumpsuit. Issues like this aren’t the fault of the crew, but the filler scenes throughout the middle of Atomica are.
Merrill’s movie isn’t fantastic, but it contains a lot of unexpected value on every front. The Syfy network should be producing more movies like Atomica; movies that are entertainingly good instead of entertainingly bad.