There’s a general thinking that the worst thing a movie can be, even bad ones, is boring. At the very least, through the sheer inanity of the plot, In the Shadow of the Moon isn’t boring, but it also isn’t very good. The Netflix produced sci-fi thriller attempts to be at once a gritty buddy cop caper, a high concept mystery, and a family drama while failing at all of them. Which is disappointing because what was potentially on the table seems like so much fun.
The film centers on cops Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) and Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine), in 1988-era Philadelphia. Don’t worry, you’ll be reminded throughout that the setting is Philadelphia with a barrage of crow bar sports references (how many 9-year-old girls wear an Iverson jersey to a graveyard?), but in 1988 the city is afflicted with a series of bizarre deaths, seemingly produced by aneurysm.
But Lockhart deduces that the deaths may be interconnected murders, as evidenced by the strange markings on each victim’s neck (another one of his super powers seems to be running down motorcycles while on foot, but that comes later). His instincts eventually lead him to a chase with an enigmatic woman whose knowledge of his private life is an obvious clue of what’s to come. Soon Lockhart’s investigation evolves into questioning why this woman is committing these murders, and how does she keep showing up against impossible circumstances?
What the film does well is re-purposing the “Obsessed Cop/Detective” cliche, wherein a cop’s family life slowly decays next to the backdrop of an unsolvable case. Hear, Lockhart isn’t just obsessed, he’s perplexed by a paradoxical series of events that could really only have one explanation, but that explanation is so insane that no one believes him. As a result, he barely registers that his family life, and sanity, is deteriorating as he spends years trying to solve this case.
What the film doesn’t handle as well is the foundation of it’s high concept ambitions. There’s a lot of parallels to be drawn with 12 Monkeys (1996) as far as the films’ relationship with time, but once the actual mysteries of the plot are revealed, certain details feel either under cooked or come off as way too convenient. Convenient in that this is a plot concerning many people on a national scale, yet the key events of the past that need to be altered over the course of decades just so happen to occur in one city? Which is just the tip of the iceberg of the film’s schlocky storytelling, to say nothing of the fact that the premise itself is hardly inspiring given it’s ubiquity across the genre. But it’s perfectly fine to not be entirely original as long as the concept is well-written, but In the Shadow of the Moon is neither.
But the most egregious action comes when the movie mostly glosses over the high stakes of it’s events to jump to an attempt at an emotional ending centering on family. This feels unearned because there’s not much sympathy to be drawn from Lockhart’s dilemma. Yes his goal is of grave importance, but he mostly ignores the dire future he’s warned about which may lead him to the answers he needs to give him closure, all while aggressively putting his family on the back burner. His reasons for wanting to pursue this case, long after it is relevant to his career or family, are not the reasons we as the viewer would pursue it. Thus, his big lesson learned feels less cathartic and more “you probably should have learned this lesson a long time ago.”
Overall, this feels less like a movie and more like the pilot of a series that needs time to flesh itself out. Like that series you watched one episode of, and since then it’s been sitting in your “Continue Watching” list for the past 3 years. That’s a lot to like about the chemistry of the actors and the world-building potential around them. But potential is often confused with quality, and this is one film where we must begrudgingly take it for what it is and not what it could be.