One of the unexpected effects of the recent proliferation of streaming platforms, is that I now occasionally find myself equating various films with their ideal platform. Does this seem like a Netflix film? Does this scream Amazon Prime? In the case of Nicholas Humphries Project Ithaca, the ideal streaming platform is one that I’m fairly certain does not yet exist: Space Channel on Demand.
In some respects, this is actually a great barometer for Humphries’ latest feature film. If the idea of a Space Channel on Demand greatly appeals to you, then Project Ithaca is a film that you will likely enjoy. If the fictionalized sci-fi streaming platform sounds less appealing to you, then maybe this film isn’t for you. There is a specific connotation to claiming that a film quintessentially meets the broad, generic conceptualization of a certain genre or style. In attempting to recall many of the details pertinent to Project Ithaca, I am reminded of all of those connotations. This feels like a film that was made specifically for an audience that craves any form of generic science fiction content.
The largest issue with this film is the bizarre, and frankly unappealing, aesthetic. This is particularly noticeable whenever the film occurs within its main setting, the prison of an alien spaceship. Inside the ship, everything is a mucky black and purple colour, with a vibrating white light occasionally streaming in from the background. Part of the muck, meanwhile, as migrated to the skin of our main protagonists, whose faces are, to varying extents, coated in dark goop (Alex Woods is covered in the stuff). The issue, however, isn’t so much that the film looks dirty, but rather, that the film looks cheap and dirty. Aesthetic stylings such as the ones employed in Project Ithaca, should offer some semblance of verisimilitude. Because the make-up does not actually provide this, it instead distracts from the intended purpose. We are supposed to understand the gravity of the situation, and specifically how uncomfortable these characters must be. Instead, all I can think about is how I am very clearly watching a smaller budget film, or a film that struggles to conceive of convincing effects.
What the film lacks in convincing aesthetics, it attempts to make up for with high-concept creativity. Project Ithaca tells the story of a group of strangers from different time periods and walks of life, who awaken aboard an alien spaceship that exists outside of time. One of these people is Sera (Deragh Campbell), who as a young girl was a part of a top-secret United States governmental operation to discover solutions to their newfound extraterrestrial problem. Sera must rediscover how to communicate with the alien spaceship that seems to be powered by the fear of its captives in order to release and save them all.
This concept ultimately has two effects: one positive and one negative. Speaking negatively first, this concept forces the film to spend most of its time aboard the aforementioned alien spaceship (which, remember, looks cheap and dirty), with the characters simply bickering at each other. Much of the film plays like Cube, except without any form of motion or setting change. This also means that most of the film’s character development must occur through dialogue, which unfortunately devolves most of them into stereotypical portrayals. The gruff talking criminal, the cryptic ex-CIA agent, the panicking former rock star, they’re all present in Project Ithaca!
The best part of this film, is the freedom of narrative progression allowed by the concept. Throughout the film, backstory is frequently provided in the form of flashbacks, which allows the Humphries to conceal and real information as the narrative requires. Likewise, the film is aided immensely by the performance of the always brilliant Deragh Campbell, who carries the back half of the film. These two elements constitute the bulk of what makes Project Ithaca the least bit engaging. Without Campbell and the creative story structure, it is likely that this film would drown amidst a sea of sci-fi aesthetic clichés.