It’s one of the oldest writing prompts in the world: “The last man on Earth froze as he heard a knock at the door.” Alas, the tantalizing potential of that premise has seldom been realized by the stories that it’s hatched, and Reed Morano’s admirably bold but aggravatingly banal “I Think We’re Alone Now” is almost enough to make you wish that people would stop trying altogether.
In this case, the man is an upstate New York librarian named Del (Peter Dinklage) — no longer a little person now that he’s the only person — and the knock on the door isn’t a knock at all, but rather a sudden plume of fireworks across the Hudson River. Del doesn’t seem particularly excited to learn that someone else might be out there after all, and neither are we, as the film’s wordless opening passages are a masterclass in table-setting.
An accomplished cinematographer whose directorial career recently picked up steam after she helmed the first episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Morano manages to shoot this story full of life, even (or especially) when there’s so little of it to be found on screen. We glean almost everything we need to know about Del’s post-apocalyptic world as he drives around his moribund town, systematically going door-to-door as he cleans each house and buries the rotten bodies in the massive graveyard he’s dug in a nearby field. He stockpiles batteries and watches DVDs on whatever laptops he can find, switching the disc from one machine to another as their batteries die forever.
Most of all, he catalogues the dead with a curator’s glee, transparently glad that he can no longer be ignored or overlooked; you imagine him as the type who always hated weekends because it meant that he had to take stock of his social life. (Morano often locates him like a monolith in the middle of her vividly composed frames, finally the center of the universe.) All in all, Del seems to be coping with things rather well, staving off entropy by restoring a sense of order to his tiny kingdom. And then he gets an unexpected light show and everything changes.
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On paper, Del and Grace (Elle Fanning) should be perfect foils for each other. He’s a surly guy who felt a lot more alone before everyone suddenly dropped dead; she’s a rambunctious teenager who’s desperate for company now that all of her friends are gone. And yet, the two of them make for a dull pair, and only toward the very end of the film does the dynamic between them begin to ring true. Del might be a curmudgeon, but he’s not a sociopath; his hostile reaction to his first new friend in forever is often hard to believe, especially as the film waits far too long for the inevitable scene where he and Grace get to break the ice. (It doesn’t help that Morano, a gifted visual stylist, seems morally opposed to shooting any kind of prolonged conversations.)
Grace, on the other hand, is far too excitable. Fanning is always watchable, but this role fails to subvert her natural guilelessness in an interesting way; the plot clouds her past in darkness, and yet that sense of sorrow feels unearned whenever it creeps into her present. Grace has good reason to be sad (unlike Del, she actually liked people before they died), but her sadness seems manufactured, in large part because Mike Makowsky’s script insists that each of his survivors simply tell each other what makes them tick.
“I Think We’re Alone Now” does moody ambiance with the best of them — if a movie version of “The Last of Us” ever gets off the ground, Reed Morano would probably be very comfortable in the director’s chair — but the film’s haunted landscapes aren’t fertile ground for character growth. Rather than forge a believable relationship between Grace and Del that stokes our interest in the future, this uneasy two-hander strings us along by raising dull questions about the past: What’s the deal with that scar on the back of Grace’s neck? And if she’s alive, does that mean other people might have survived the plague?
“I Think We’re Alone Now” isn’t big on ambiguity, and the answers to these mysteries arrive on the heels of a miserable third act twist that transforms a decent character study into a particularly bloated episode of “Black Mirror,” reducing its characters to their most basic messages in the process. Everything that Grace and Del might have meant to us, and everything they might have meant to each other, is thrown out as the script minimizes their plight into the stuff of a cheap morality play.
Is it worth feeling nothing so as not to feel anything? Is it better to love and lose than to never love at all? It takes the film nearly 100 minutes to frame rhetorical questions that it has absolutely no interest in letting viewers answer for themselves. And, as if that weren’t already frustrating enough, we never even hear the song! Even a brief snippet of Tiffany’s cover version would’ve been nice to throw in there as a party favor. Alas, no matter what Del has to say on the subject, “I Think We’re Alone Now” leaves us with the unmistakable impression that the end of the world is even more of a bummer than it sounds.
“I Think We’re Alone Now” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.