PLOT: After scientists have created the first man-made black hole in outer space, a blackout seizes the world, followed by the arrival of shiny black “doors” everywhere, which turn out to be portals to… where?
REVIEW: Take a pinch of 2001, a smidge of PRINCE OF DARKNESS, put it in a blender with “The Outer Limits” and “Black Mirror,” and you might get something that looks like PORTALS, which comes to us from the producers of the V/H/S films. Consider it the sci-fi version of that trilogy, although the found footage angle is dropped (thankfully) and there’s a narrative throughline connecting all three stories. The film starts off ambitiously, setting up an engrossing scenario that sees the entire world visited by mysterious doors (that somewhat resemble, probably not by coincidence, the monoliths in 2001) that have unusual, and deadly, effects on people. The stage is set for a series of stories that detail various people’s encounters with the doors, preparing us for the final revelation as to what’s on the other side of them. Ultimately, the movie promises more than it can deliver, not giving us quite the startling sci-fi horror experience we might have hoped for, but it still keeps you more or less interested by the mystery of its scenario and several eerie (and bloody) sequences.
The wrap-around story comes from Liam O’Donnell, who gave us the immortal BEYOND SKYLINE a few years ago. “The Other Side” deals with a man who, while traveling with his wife and daughter to visit his mother-in-law as panic grips the nation over the strange phenomena, crashes into one of the portals, leaving him in a coma and his wife and daughter missing. Once he wakes up in the hospital with a strange infection in his eye, he finds that his doctors might not have his best interests in mind. This segment features a really good performance by lead Neil Hopkins, as a man equally frustrated and frightened by his increasingly harrowing predicament. While I didn’t care much for how this segment wrapped up (which is a theme throughout PORTALS), O’Donnell keeps us invested with his solid protagonist, those creepy doctors and some rather nasty moments.
BLAIR WITCH PROJECT co-director and producer, Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, respectively, team up for a tale about a 911 call center that is flooded with calls, understandably, at the beginning of the frightening blackout. Not long after, they themselves are visited by one of the ominous portals. Another segment with respectable acting but a shaky narrative, “Call Center” is suspenseful for a while, as one of the call center’s own goes loco and begins talking to… whatever is out there, but the finale isn’t much of a finale, making the segment feel unfinished and half-baked.
Finally, we have Timo Tjahjanto’s “Sarah,” which certainly offers up the most visceral thrills of the anthology. Resembling something between the aforementioned PRINCE OF DARKNESS and Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” segment from V/H/S 2, “Sarah” plunges us into a nightmare scenario where two feuding sisters find themselves trapped in a parking garage as the blackout gets underway. Stuff gets weird fast as everyone else in the garage start acting like mindless zombies, including one of the sisters. Tjahjanto directs the segment with considerable style, doing one of those “one take” deals (even though the cuts are pretty obvious), and the overall gloomy atmosphere of the affair is pretty effective. Still, “Sarah” suffers from the same syndrome the others do, which is that the script more or less seems to be winging it, showing us strange sights and having its characters act perplexingly to no greater purpose. Weirdness for weirdness’ sake.
For reasons I’m not quite sure I understand, an epilogue pops up during the end credits, something out of a Marvel movie, one tied to a brief prologue. (The movie’s timeline is all out of wack and might have benefitted from a more streamlined approach.) It’s curious, because plenty of viewers will have stopped watching the film by that point, and the mini-segment gives us plenty more to think about regarding the portals, as well as a decent bit of gore. Not much more to say about it, however, because it offers more questions than answers, leaving the viewer more confused than intrigued.
And that’s when we get to the heart of PORTALS’s main problem: we never understand much of anything that’s going on, and the further the movie goes, the less we care. Why did scientists create a black hole in the first place? What, exactly, are these portals’ purpose? Is a sequel necessary to fully understand everything that’s transpired (the epilogue certainly hints at one)? I’m all for ambiguity in a film, but PORTALS comes off like no one had a firm plan in mind; everyone seems to be making it up as they go along. Unfortunately, though PORTALS offers some tantalizing mysteries here and there, some decent performances, and a handful of shocking moments, you’re not likely to be very interested in a follow-up should one be announced.