The condemned: The Dawnseeker (2018)
The plot: I often think about a film the gaming club at my undergraduate school made. Called Doppelgamer 3: The Hunt For Doppelgamer 2, it was the definition of a movie made only to please the people who made it. Full of goofy non sequiturs, Monty Python references, and arcane mythology that probably doubled as inside jokes for the filmmakers, it was borderline unwatchable for the average person, but it had one clear area of passion: special effects. There was a giant 20-sided die that chased people around campus, and it ended with a genuinely impressive shot of an alien ship blowing up one of our dorms, à la the White House in Independence Day. The Dawnseeker strikes me as the film they would’ve made, had they been instructed to replace all fantasy elements with sci-fi—and also, had any noticeable sense of humor or personality been strictly verboten. This is a Home Video Hell entry definitively worthy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
Honestly, the plot of this movie is really difficult to explain, in part because it has no real central narrative to speak of, aside from some vague nonsense about saving Earth via the collection of stardust. You know when you were a kid, and you and a friend would come up with the plot of your own movie, and it basically changed from scene to scene, adding on subplots and inexplicable elements until you got bored and wandered off to play Nintendo? It’s kind of like that—easily the most confounding film, narrative-wise, in the past few years of this feature. Thankfully, it’s so batshit-nuts, it’s also the most rewarding.
Taking place in the year 2248 (at least, at first—more on that soon), The Dawnseeker opens with some voice-over garbage about the strongest humans being forced to fight in distant galaxies to collect precious stardust. We follow an unknown woman (Franziska Schissler) who seems to have some special security clearance as she beats up a few guys—but that’s quickly rendered pointless by the next sequence on a spaceship, where we learn her name is Fenix and she’s part of a team that are going to collect stardust, which will somehow prevent Earth from “falling back into the dark ages.” Unfortunately, this means going up against creatures called Dawnseekers—though it seems they have a secret weapon in the form of a creature they’ve captured and plan to bring along on the hunt.
So far, it’s a bit vague but at least makes minimal sense: They have a task, and are setting out to accomplish it. This is when things really go off the rails. (Also, keep in mind that at this point we’re about 15 minutes in, and the only reason we know anyone’s name is because they’re now wearing uniforms with names affixed to them.) Suddenly, and for no discernible reason, the ship suffers an emergency, and Fenix takes an escape pod (maybe? or maybe it’s a mini-ship?) and blasts off, landing on the planet Omia Prime. Here, she meets up with her crew mates, and they embark on a quest to collect stardust, avoid locals, survive the threat of Dawnseekers, and return home again. Only, most of that turns out to be revised as we go along, until by the end of the movie they’re attempting to travel through a ripple in time caught between realms, called a Space Ark, in order to save the sun in that dimension, and thereby save Earth somehow, possibly by pulling it through as well? Who knows. I’m not exaggerating. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the myriad subplots and casually tossed-off lines of dialogue that would completely alter the entire plot, if there was a coherent one to speak ok. Bear with me, because this gets messy—stupidly, hilariously messy.
Over-the-top box copy: “A new breed of predator,” announces the front of the currently digital-only release—a clear indicator that we’re in mockbuster territory, and this movie is attempting to capitalize on interest in the latest iteration of the Predator franchise. But unlike shameless attempts to trick people into renting the wrong film, Transmorphers-style, this one just hopes a Predator namecheck and a picture of an alien with a weird toothy mouth on the cover will be enough to elicit your attention and dollars.
The descent: Honestly, the low-rent shamelessness of a clear attempt to pull an old-school Roger Corman maneuver, exploiting affection for more popular mainstream entertainment with a shoestring budget and little more than a roll of the dice for the quality of the end result, still retains some appeal for those like myself who harbor a fondness for the art of the B-movie cinematic grift. My co-worker (and fellow fan of lowbrow nonsense) Katie Rife passed this one along to me, with an “Eh?” and a proverbial nudge in the ribs. Writer-director-editor-producer Justin Price presumably is modeling his career on that Corman example (though Uwe Boll is probably a better point of reference), because he’s produced, directed, and released five films in the past year and a half alone.
What makes Price’s movie unique is not just the haphazard nature of the end result—plenty of people create crappy no-budget sci-fi—but how little care for detail or clarity has gone into it. Put it this way: When researching this feature, I found an interview with Price in which he reveals the following tidbit halfway through: “Seeing as how this is a sequel to Alien Reign Of Man it was really important that we continued the journey of the characters into this world.” There is no indication in any of The Dawnseeker’s press materials, IMDB description, or the movie itself to give any clue whatsoever this is a sequel. Imagine reading Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix without any hint there had been four books before it. (Also, there’s a whole conversation to be had about the title, Alien Reign Of Man. Is that a Bergman-esque commentary on how humankind can never truly know itself? Or did someone forget the colon?)
The theoretically heavenly talent: None. The only actor to have any significant credits to their name is Schissler’s one-named co-star, Khu, who appears to be Price’s co-producing partner, as well as the Kate Beckinsale to his Len Wiseman, having starred or appeared in most of their previous projects. (She’s also the line producer, director of photography, and heaven knows what other informal roles on this movie.)
The execution: Where to begin? I can say in all honesty that this is the most confusing, inexplicable, laugh-out-loud display of “What the fuck?”-ness I’ve encountered since taking over writing Home Video Hell for The A.V. Club. It’s not funny enough to stand alongside so-bad-they’re-great classics like Birdemic: Shock And Terror, but it’s also not the painful slog of a Singularity. Rather, it occupies a middle ground that combines senses-numbing dullness and overblown moments of comically stupid magic. It literally has no organizing logic. It lacks the personal passion-project zeal of something like The Room, instead conveying the stilted incompetence of movies my AVC predecessor Scott Tobias referred to as “mistakes of proportion, when amateur filmmakers shooting on video or 16mm with virtually no budget set about aping Hollywood productions.” (It’s clearly a product of corporate logic, as Price admits in that same interview: “The Dawnseeker begin [sic] when my producing partner Khu and my entire Pikchure Zero Entertainment team—Deanna Grace Congo, Lisa May, David Cazares, J.D. Ellis, and Melissa Vega—gathered around the round table and asked what sci-fi film can we make.” He later says, “This film was greenlit to take advantage of the Oklahoma City film rebate program.”)
Hearkening back to my MST3K reference up top, I would call it a 21st-century version of Lost Continent, the inept and tiresome yet undeniably fun-to-mock 1951 B-movie tripe starring Cesar Romero. But in the case of The Dawnseeker, that earlier film’s endless tedium of rock climbing is replaced with the endless tedium of the even-less-cinematic acts of “walking and staring.” A drinking game where you did a shot every time a character stood around looking at nothing in particular for longer than 20 seconds would quickly land you in the hospital. The lack of a fundamental sense of blocking, spatial dimensions, editing, and more isn’t surprising in this kind of movie, but the film’s commitment to molasses-slow moments of eye contact at something just off screen is staggering, like it was shot on quaaludes. Here are our initial characters walking toward a creature they’ve captured, one that will supposedly help them collect stardust, though it’s never explained how. Keep in mind this is still the beginning of the movie, and we know nothing about these characters or this creature. (They’ve barely spoken a word, and we’ve learned none of their personalities, or even most of their names.) See how long this almost-50-second clip feels.
Excruciating, no? Please believe me when I say that after the others leave this scene, Fenix continues to stare at the creature for an additional 46 seconds, at one point looking away, then looking back. It’s like the entire movie is shot at half-speed. Here’s an establishing shot of the spaceship; let’s count how long it takes, shall we?
I suspect the filmmakers realized that’s the best-looking CGI shot in the movie, so they wanted to stretch it out as long as possible. But my favorite part isn’t even the far-too-long pan of the ship passing by. No, what really makes it great is the abrupt cut to an alarm on the now-failing ship, forcing Fenix to abandon it. Do we ever learn the cause? We do not. Causes are for Dawnseekers.
The drowsy sense of pacing is the primary villain of this movie, far more than any evil alien. But it becomes so bluntly absurd that it takes on a comical edge, the Rake effect in action. With every scene of endless strolling, punctuated by humorless stares off into space, it gets a little more ridiculous. Finally, by the climactic third act of the film, it’s downright giggle-inducing. Here’s one of the first confrontations with the Dawnseeker. The soldiers on Omia have captured our heroes, who look on in horror as the creature enters a firefight with the dozen or so laser-gun-wielding humans (none of whom we’ve met or know the names of, because why introduce stakes?). It’s like watching someone leisurely cut their nails, if by nails you mean human opponents.
There are so many things wrong with the sequence: The incoherent camerawork, the characters shooting in the opposite direction of their enemy (it’s not like the Dawnseeker can teleport or anything, let’s be clear), the soldiers facing opposite directions as they fire… it’s a mess to do Ed Wood proud. It goes on for quite a while longer, too.
Similarly, one of the final confrontations with the Dawnseeker, who we’ve seen rip through most of the human population of the movie by this point, takes its sweet time as well. Once you’ve gotten accustomed to the barely-moving rubber mask that constitutes its face, try and savor the near Sergio Leone-esque level of pause in the rumble, where the alien kicks a guy into a tree stump, and suddenly the character has a cigar in his mouth that wasn’t there before. Then, he decides a good time to relight it is right before throwing himself at this deadly foe. Also, we previously saw this man has the ability to light his smoke with only his thumb—some sort of cybernetic enhancement, presumably—and yet now takes the time to pull out a lighter. (The goofy laser-gun CGI at the end is just icing on the interminable cake.)
But lest you think The Dawnseeker is limited only to unintentional laughs based on the editing, let me assure you the fun begins right away. The opening credits are meant to double as a way to reveal a tidbit of information about each character. No matter our complete lack of awareness of this universe, thereby rendering any references useless, the credits tip you off that whatever role actor Jason Skeen is playing, you should know his “NATIVE PLACE” is “assumably” Kelt-9b:
A delightful lack of proper grammar isn’t the only clue from the opening minutes of the film that the people behind The Dawnseeker may not be sweating the details. Prior to those credits, there’s an opening sequence set on Earth that, as far as I can tell, has literally no bearing on the rest of the movie, and I’ve watched it multiple times now. It features Fenix picking up a random piece of tech off a dead body (one that eventually gets used, but since it’s never explained here or later, the scene is pointless) and then fighting a gang of thugs. But the little moments of world-building are the real giveaway. For example, please enjoy this 3D advertisement—one that resembles imagery and sound from an old PlayStation 2 game, which is apparently the level of technology they’ve advanced to in the year 2248:
The technology anachronisms ended up being one of my favorite parts of the film. To wit: There’s a brief fight sequence after Fenix crash-lands on the planet Omia Prime, where most of the film takes place. Somehow, she runs smack into Otto, who apparently landed more than a week earlier, and the two dispatch some baddies in what resembles a paintball fight. But to flush out the last remaining threat hiding in a nearby building, Fenix runs up, pulls a grenade, tosses it, and the two prep for a massive explosion. Instead… well, see for yourself:
Isn’t it great how she runs right to the already-dead body at the end there, instead of checking on the results of her little flash-bang device? These folks never miss an opportunity to choose the weirdest possible action in response to whatever situation is in front of them. Here’s a gentleman determinedly firing his gun in one direction, only to stop and think, “Wait, should I be firing at the Dawnseeker rather than nothing?” He then turns and looks right at it, but exhibits no indication of registering that fact—until it walks up and gently pushes him, resulting in the guy flying straight into the sky. It’s great.
I could keep going. There are so many great little clips I pulled, this could easily turn into an endless parade of snippets, like some sort of outsider-art sci-fi movie reduced to its most wonderful components. Should we watch the part where a solar eclipse plunges the whole planet into night, even though that’s not how solar eclipses work, especially when the other planet/moon, as shown, is still smaller than the sun? Or what about the part where a soldier looks calmly and methodically in every direction, keeping a sensible vigilance as she turns in a steady circle around her, then promptly gets skewered from behind, a place she was looking only two seconds prior? (Again, no teleportation or powers of invisibility, here.) Or maybe the moments where the sound simply fails to sync up with the screen, so a series of nose-crunching punches appear to be silent, yet paired with someone offscreen slapping bamboo together? They all happen, and they’re all great.
Okay, one more: We keeping hearing about the deadly alien race called Dawnseekers for the first half of the film. But when one is finally introduced, it’s executed in the most confusing way possible. A character named Jax is looking for her friends, or maybe tracking a Dawnseeker—who knows, the movie sure doesn’t seem to. Anyway, she’s suddenly grabbed from behind by a woman who turns out to be a mercenary the local soldiers are tracking (the aforementioned Khu), and is also maybe Fenix’s sister. (Don’t ask.) The reason she grabs Jax? There’s a Dawnseeker nearby! Unfortunately, there’s also another badly rendered CGI monster that makes its sole appearance in this moment, so viewers are left baffled as to which alien is the Dawnseeker, and which is… something else. See for yourself.
Wow, it’s even worse the sixth time around! I should probably stop replaying it.
But the best aspect of The Dawnseeker, the most inexplicable—because it could’ve easily been fixed—is the question of time. At the film’s outset, we are very clearly told what year it is:
2248. Got it. That’s all I needed to know. But then things get weird. Remember how Fenix has to abandon the spaceship she and her crew were on, and take an escape pod down to planet Omia Prime, where she again meets up with them? Well, before going there, let’s just remember there is no indication, at any point, that time travel is a thing in this world. It’s never mentioned, or even referenced. As far as we know, this is all science-based storytelling, just set in the future where we’ve made contact with aliens. Only, when Fenix enters the atmosphere of Omia Prime and crash lands, we’re treated to this nugget of information:
WHAT. THE. HELL?!?! Fifty years have elapsed? There is no indication she went into cryosleep! There’s nothing to justify this. It is a baffling choice. I have been turning it over in my head repeatedly, and here’s the best explanation I could come up with: Someone in graphics was tasked with adding this information, but they skimmed the first one too quickly and thought it said “2298" instead of 2248. No other reason makes an ounce of sense.
Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered, because no other reference to time makes any fucking sense, either. After she lands, Otto tells Fenix he’s been on Omia Prime for “more than a week.” How?! HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE. You both just escaped your alarm-sounding spaceship, presumably within minutes of each other. Here’s an even funnier one: When someone references a place called Terminus, Jax scoffs, “Terminus died out centuries ago.” Wouldn’t that place the time of death for this Terminus outpost somewhere, oh, say, in the 20th century at the earliest? This was one of several moments I stood up from my chair and asked aloud, to no one in particular, if I had suffered a stroke. And then, to provide a nice nonsensical dollop of ketchup atop this breakfast skillet of chronological hash, we get this beautiful moment, less than 15 minutes before the end of the movie:
When did it become July 2245? That is earlier than this movie began.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Oh god, I hope so. I will single-handedly invite people over, one at a time, to view this film, until the entire A.V. Club readership has experienced its majesty. I will screen bootleg copies in bars, for free. I will catapult burned DVDs through people’s living-room windows if need be, to spread word of the existence of The Dawnseeker. It is that bad.
Damnable commentary track or special feature: Thus far, it appears to be a VOD-only release, but I sincerely hope that changes. I want a director’s commentary, a making-of documentary, cast and crew interviews… hell, I want a Blu-ray 4K SteelBook edition with bonus concept art. I will take it all. Come on world, give us The Dawnseeker content we demand.