William O’Brien’s second feature Scintilla is another foray into the same theme of bad scientists being irresponsible with human genetics that 2006’s Isolation was hung around. This time John Lynch (think a sort of cut-price brooding Northern Irish Scott Bakula) stars as a soldier of fortune, leading a rag tag mob of very unlikely mercenaries, as they raid the secret laboratories of an ex-Soviet research facility.
Underneath this stronghold, and for reasons which are never readily explained, a brilliant Cambridge scientist has been single-mindedly creating alien hybrids for the best part of twenty years, but without ever seeing daylight. Perpetually trapped underground to the point that her clothes have remained the fashion of the time she entered the facility. In a nice touch her ancient clothes are clad entirely in plastic – because of, you know, science.
As horror films go Isolation was a creature feature, the schlock and awe was down to the grotesquery of the beings created by the bad scientists. In Scintilla the guts and blood are still present and correct but the suggestion of horror comes more from the vaguely creeping chills of the hybrids’ abilities and the slightly unusual sense that we should actually be on their side, not the heroes.
We first meet John Lynch’s Powell being tortured, again for reasons which are never properly explained, in a South African prison. He’s a curiously uninvolving character, never really given the chance to show what a badass he is presumably meant to be. He permanently carries a packed lunch, which although on one level suggests he has a wry humour about his situation, having seen better days and with an ability to remain distant, it also makes him incredibly difficult to take seriously.
Why was he being tortured? What was he doing in prison in the first place? Well it appears the audience are being asked to create that particular backstory for themselves. Although his gaggle of weapon toting mercenaries clearly respect him they are such an unusual bunch the film could do with a little explanation of how on earth they managed to get together in the first place. They were a team before and they are a team again. This job, breaking into the military camp of a made-up former Soviet republic based directly above a research facility, is the kind of thing they used to do despite the fact that for the most part they don’t look like they’ve dealt with anything harder than not having hot water in their dressing rooms, they are doing it again.
Still, there are some low impact shocks and jumps. And for a low budget horror the effects, on the whole, are not bad at all. That said there are some terribly cheap looking creatures wearing helmets which look like awful insects from a 1950s B-movie.
For the most part the cast, including Beth Winslet, Antonia Thomas and Ned Dennehy, give it a good crack but really they don’t have much to play with. As feature films go Scintilla is pretty flimsy. Every character is underwritten and the plot is so straightforward it’s barely A to B, let alone A to Z. It would have benefited with the backstory being given some proper context, and the reasons why Powell was in prison being properly explained. Structurally not much more happens other than the group go into a base, wander around some corridors and slowly get picked off in true but utterly unsurprising horror fashion.
Unfortunately, because of this, even the surprises aren’t particularly surprising. Scintilla isn’t a very involving or satisfying watch. Only the very, very end of the film – when the story shifts gear entirely – leaves the audience with anything to think about. In many respects it’s probably where a far more interesting film would start.
Previously posted on cinetalk.co.uk