Starring Milo Ventimiglia, Bridget Regan, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet, Adam Hurtig
Directed by Clay Staub
Clay Staub’s Devil’s Gate is, coincidentally, in no way a satanic sinner. Think instead a countrified skew on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, completely extraterrestrial in its desire to thrill. Small pockets exist where creature design roars loudly and anxiety ramps, but overall project cohesion is an issue here. Mythologies are pulled from a possessed farmer’s almanac, yet Staub’s explanation of story is about as engaging as a tumbleweed parade. Dilapidated set designs make for creaky haunts staged by towering alien creatures – then the third act hits. Convoluted, a bit obvious and way less engaging than visuals dictate. It’s hard to tell where *exactly* things go wrong…they just do.
Milo Ventimiglia stars as Jackson Pritchard, a reclusive husband who’s barricaded himself inside his family’s generations-old farmhouse. Boarded up windows, camouflaged bear traps, barbed wire decorations – the whole shebang. FBI Special Agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) thinks this is because he’s kidnapped his missing wife and child, so Deputy “Colt” Salter (Shawn Ashmore) escorts her to the rustic fortress. Turns out there *is* something caged up in the basement, just not human. Jackson swears he can trade his monster for those who’ve vanished, much to the shock of both law enforcers. Then the lightning storm strikes – and sensibility turns to sci-fi chaos.
What’s appreciated about Devil’s Gate is that this North Dakota takeover is never reliant on paranoia. A non-human race is exposed in plain sight. No blurred figures or *possible* beings relegated to the shadows. These are alien invaders with an agenda, fully realized from fanged teeth to bulbous heads to stretchy exo-goop wingspans. Spacemen are so often used as tools to manipulate tension without actual presentation – it’s nice to see Staub remain confident in his effects team.
That said, it’s hard pinning down just what in tarnation is going on in Devil’s Gate – which is strange, because exposition is stone-heavy. We know that extraterrestrials intend to colonize Earth but first need to figure out how to breathe our life-giving air. Jackson’s family have long been guinea pigs, studied and experimented as skin suits for alien souls (I think?). Something something Jackson’s wife giving birth to foreign babies and his living son maybe being one of them but also maybe not? My question marks are indicative of how the film introduces information, us grasping for straws as plotting chugs forward without permitting proper time for twists to sink in.
Performances are fitting but staggered, mostly because characters evolve at such a rapid rate. Colt is a forgiving childhood friend of Jackson’s until Staub’s mid-film “shocker” turns Colt against Jackson, gun-to-head style. Special Agent Daria enters a skeptic, but is eventually seen pleading with Maria Pritchard (Bridget Regan) not to doom humanity just because of her motherly instincts. Then there’s Jackson – a flannel trucker type who goes all biblical – fighting for his family even though it’s all aliens and light beams and eyes for eyes…yeah, who is this character? Everyone’s so very small-town and country bumpkin proficient, but it all circles back to how thin a story is established. Like, for example – why is the gigantic cosmic portal rune sitting in the back of a father-son photograph completely ignored for years?!
Devil’s Gate is most frustrating because on a physical, cinematic level, there are aspects worth praising – snarling intergalactic beasts (kudos, Javier Botet), a torn rib cage, some wavy field shots (definitely not that weak CGI lightning, though) – yet these images cannot defend against a short-changed story that repeatedly gets ahead of itself before rectifying the “now.” At 94 minutes, grander ideas are horrendously underdeveloped and subjected to blinding flashback distractions. Jackson’s rambling is fair given the junkyard castle he’s built, but a cross between religious prayer and otherworldly visitors confuses instead of tickles. It’s a curious buildup that crumbles under the weight of a head-scratching third act unless you’re a sucker for damning humanity – maybe then all this mumbo jumbo makes sense.
Devil’s Gate beams into its story with reckless abandon, but advances far quicker than audiences keep up with. At least there are some cool Javier Botet aliens, though?