Arcadian Is a Touching Coming-of-Age Survival Story

Image courtesy of RLJE Films.

Benjamin Brewer’s (co-writer of Netflix’s 2023 release Reptile) post-apocalyptic thriller Arcadian pays homage to the creature feature genre, taking a surprisingly refreshing approach despite its flaws. The surviving-the-end-of-the-world synopsis is often a tired concept, à la the A Quiet Place franchise. Yet, in the context of a father, Paul (Nicolas Cage), and his two twin sons, Joseph (Jaeden Martell) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins), living in a rural community fearing otherworldly creatures that wreak havoc at night, it all boils down to the characters’ simple human necessity for survival and connection amidst great odds. 

For many fans, the most appealing draw of Brewer’s Arcadian would be Nicolas Cage as the titular father figure who slays bloodthirsty creatures. Cage brilliantly exudes a quiet strength and manages to bring a grounded realness to Paul that mirrors certain characteristics of his actual father. His handful of scenes with Martell and Jenkins are sincere and touching. However, perhaps the most intriguing element is the relationship between Joseph and Thomas. While the movie begins as a survival story about a family, it ends up being about the unbreakable bond of brothers and the inherent tensions that morph into a compassionate understanding of their differences. 

Brothers Joseph and Thomas look distraught and exhausted in Arcadian.
Jaeden Martell as Joseph and Maxwell Jenkins as Thomas in Arcadian (2024). Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder.

The sci-fi horror film utilizes plenty of handheld camera movements, often appearing shaky and naturalistic, an artistic decision that gets tiresome after a while. It starts with a day in the life of Paul, Joseph, and Thomas, and the paramount routines vital to their “normal” daily lives. They eat dinner together, forage for food, and secure the house before the uncertainty of the darkness plagues them. Amid this subtext, there’s noticeable, surface-level character development for Joseph and Thomas, which, unfortunately, could have been explored deeper but is bogged down by the exhilaratingly senseless violence of killing the disturbing shape-shifting creatures and battling a ticking clock.

Arcadian screenwriter Michael Nilon effectively weaves the familial narrative while briefly revealing the apocalypse’s nuclear origins, its goal of eradicating the human race, and its toll on this pastoral community fifteen years into the apocalypse. The underlying tension paired with Brewer’s indie-centric filmmaking techniques aids in an invigorating journey of heroism, sacrifice, and getting in touch with one’s masculinity. The coming-of-age theme resonates when Thomas experiences the thrill of first love with a headstrong girl (Sadie Soverall) who lives on a neighboring farm populated with people who are even more menacing and threatening than the creatures themselves, ironically. Thomas and Joseph witness the loss of innocence as they fight to exist and endure the horrors of reality. 

Thomas is standing in the middle of a secluded forest looking valiant in Arcadian.
Maxwell Jenkins as Thomas in Arcadian (2024). Photo courtesy of Patrick Redmond or RLJE Films.

Jaeden Martell’s subtle performance as the intellectually gifted and mature Joseph is a stand-out performance as expected from his previous roles as Bill Denbrough in 2017’s IT and the 2020 Apple TV+ mini-series Defending Jacob. Maxwell Jenkins of Lost in Space notoriety perfectly plays the brooding, lovestruck teenager who doesn’t think before he acts. They complement each other phenomenally while playing a believable pair of brothers dealing with grief and owning up to the weight of every decision that bears life-or-death consequences.

The film’s creature design is the most unsettling and bone-chilling VFX work in recent memory, as hairy and spindly chatter-box demonic beings torment the remaining humans in Brewer and Nilon’s Arcadian worldbuilding. Interestingly, these things look almost animalistic in their form and demeanor, making them even creepier and deceptive. The outstanding work by Benjamin Brewer and his gifted VFX team is beyond admirable.

Arcadian doesn’t invite new concepts or ideas into the post-apocalyptic zeitgeist; it treads waters that have been explored before while following rather conventional story beats and plot points. It’s disappointing that the script could have been more vigilant in developing Joseph and Thomas, learning more about their fears, hopes, and dashed dreams. Some insights into Joseph’s aspirations and talents are glimpsed but it doesn’t go much further. Little to nothing is learned about Thomas, except his capacity for physical maneuvers.

Nevertheless, these minor issues don’t detract from Brewer’s admirable and compelling feature film as a whole. The success of Arcadian lies in its talented actors and remarkable creature work. Those top two traits make it a fun and gory ride that keeps the thrill alive until the very end.

Written by Lilli Keeve

Lilli has had a passion for movies her entire life. She has a BS in Film Studies with an emphasis in Film Analysis and Theory from Portland State University in the beautiful downtown Portland, Oregon. Lilli has an AA degree in English from West Los Angeles College in Culver City, CA, known as the Heart of Screenland.

She has also done freelance writing for Looper, Pinnacle Magazine, and Film Daily and has her own film review blog. When she’s not rewatching her favorite films or searching for a new TV show to binge, she’s reading or taking photographs.

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