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Nicolas Cage Takes a Back Seat to a Bunch of Bugs

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Nicolas Cage Takes a Back Seat to a Bunch of Bugs

It’s the end of the world, and no one in “Arcadian” has a good explanation for what happened. Some kind of mutant-insect infestation happened off-screen long before the main action of the film, which amounts to shaky, handheld snatches of the surviving humans making dumb decisions that may hasten their own extinction. Like a noisy, inelegant knockoff of “A Quiet Place,” Ben Brewer’s exasperating creature feature focuses on a family of three — an unusually restrained Nicolas Cage and his two teenage sons — squatting in a farmhouse, where they board the doors and windows at night to keep the predators at bay.

Brewer, who served as a lead visual effects designer on “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” brings to the table some novel design ideas for the movie’s giant bug-like beasts, which suggest a cross between praying mantises and apocalypse-resistant cockroaches, with multiple mandibles and other sharp surprises that unfold like the blades of a Swiss Army knife. On several occasions, the crunchy critters link up to form a rolling wheel — a nifty but none-too-effective trick. Unfortunately, Brewer and screenwriter Mike Nilon ignored an essential rule: Conceiving an original monster isn’t nearly as important as coming up with compelling human characters.

An opening prologue shows Cage’s character, Paul, jogging past the dark, looming skyline of a dystopian police state where a military conflict is unfolding (imagine a low-budget “12 Monkeys” or “Children of Men”). Doing his best to avoid detection, Paul puts the care of his two infant children ahead of his own safety. (In time, that instinct will leave him unconscious and incapacitated for a good stretch of the film — no longer the star, but a supporting player.)

Most of “Arcadian” takes place about 15 years later. The family is now living far from civilization, amid a peaceful-looking countryside, though the still-frantic camerawork belies the irony of the film’s title. Life is anything but idyllic. Obedient son Joseph (“It” star Jaeden Martell) shows an almost scientific curiosity about the nocturnal creatures, managing to trap one by using himself as bait. Meanwhile, his more impulsive brother, Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins of “Lost in Space”), seems relatively oblivious to the risk, sneaking away to the Rose farm, where a girl named Charlotte (Sadie Soverall) lives with a protective group of well-armed adults.

Dating takes on a whole new dimension when the two young people could be responsible for replenishing the population, and it’s a shame the film doesn’t put more emphasis on this fragile, tentative relationship — or how other brother Joseph feels about not having a mate. The boys ask their father if there are other survivors out there, and Paul insists on being optimistic. But for now the giant insects seem to be winning: Every time they kill someone, the human race shrinks considerably, whereas their number seems inexhaustible.

Occasionally, a filmmaker hatches a clever way to tell such a sci-fi parable without resorting to clumsy expository dialogue (the conventional wisdom is to “show, not tell”), but Brewer never gives audiences enough to form a satisfying picture of the situation. At one point, Thomas and Charlotte play a familiar “apocalypse game,” competing to summarize what went wrong with the planet in a few seconds, but their responses merely confuse. Whatever “Arcadian” wants to say about the species, it’s basically just a monster-movie version of “The Alamo” or “Attack on Precinct 13,” as the characters cower in their makeshift fort and prepare for the worst. They block the doors; the bugs come through the floors.

Brewer builds tension via suggestion for a while, withholding the creatures until a well-designed and genuinely disturbing scene in which one of these meanies reaches a long, menacing limb through an open window. Eventually, he gives audiences a longer look, though the cinematography and editing are so sloppy, it’s hard to form a mental picture. Apart from a couple shots mounted to Paul’s homemade ATV, the entire film is shot like a frantic war documentary, jerky enough to inspire nausea. DP Frank Mobilio probably should have reserved that approach for the action scenes, while editor Kristi Shimek cuts away anytime the insects get close, interrupting the tension.

Cage worked with the director once before, on “The Trust,” and this reunion feels like a favor. The actor doesn’t have nearly enough to do, beyond demonstrating the importance of families sticking together through hardship. Cage’s fans love to see him chewing the scenery, whereas in “Arcadian,” that task falls to the creatures.

“Arcadian” opens in theaters on April 12, with a Shudder and AMC+ streaming debut planned for later in the year.

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