By Steph Cannon
In the world of content creation, coming up with a unique concept and idea is unquestionably difficult. Actually executing that idea from thoughts in your head into a smartly formatted piece of entertainment is even more challenging. Abruptio, the all-puppet endeavor from writer/director Evan Marlowe, certainly swings for the fences in an attempt to bring something fresh and new but gets tangled up along the way.
Utilizing astonishingly lifelike, human-sized puppets, Abruptio boasts an impressive lineup of voice talent, including James Marsters, Jordan Peele, Robert Englund, and Sid Haig (in one of his last performances). Production for the film began back in 2015, and the buzz and excitement from fans eager for an unprecedented piece of cinematic storytelling has heightened since that time.
We’re first introduced to main character Les Hackel (Marsters), a typical, middle-aged guy who is stuck in the monotonous rut that comes with a dead-end job, failing relationship, plus a serious lack of motivation and ambition. When his girlfriend breaks up with him and he’s forced to move back in with his parents, his life appears to be at an all-time low, until he receives an unusual message from his buddy Danny (Peele).
He urges Les to check the back of his neck for a scar, and that if there, it means there’s a bomb that’s been surgically implanted. Les barely has time to confirm and process this information when he begins to receive cryptic messages from blackmailers, who give him instructions for a series of horrific missions he must complete. If he doesn’t execute them, the bomb will go off. With each task becoming more heinous than the one before it, Les soon becomes caught up in a twisted web of mind games and crimes. As he begins to develop a bond with another victim of the blackmailers named Chelsea (Hana Mae Lee), he realizes he has much more to live for than he previously thought…but is it too late for him?
Abruptio starts off as a fascinating watch, but then quickly descends into a perverse and bizarre experience. During the first act, the grandeur of the puppeteering is so impressive, it’s almost distracting. Its obvious that painstaking detail was given during the creation of each puppet, with facial expressions and movements that are so human-like, you almost forget you aren’t watching actual actors.
On the flip side, there are just as many pointed attempts to dehumanize them, particularly with their overly large, rapidly blinking eyes. This easily takes the audience into Uncanny Valley territory. There’s likely to be just as many who will be creeped out by the look and presentation of these puppets as there will be those enthralled by it.
Oddly enough, Abruptio’s biggest pitfalls have nothing to do with the puppeteering, and more to do with a meandering, overtly strange storyline. Not enough time is spent telling the viewer why events are happening, how they started, and what the overall point is. Les is portrayed as a sympathetic character, particularly in the beginning, but his actions, and how he handles the mess he’s in, don’t quite line up, making it difficult at times to root for him.
There are moments over the course of the movie that elicit questions for why the filmmakers chose to use puppets in the first place, except possibly for avant-garde, irreverent reasons. Truthfully, especially in the cinematic world, there doesn’t need to be any more reason than that. The movie jumps so far into disturbing moments, though, that it does seem like the only way they could properly pull them off was without the involvement of human actors.
That’s not to say there isn’t a demographic this movie will appeal to. Fans of offbeat, outlandish effects and storylines surely will be impressed, and the years of work and attention to detail put into this production can’t be denied. In the end, Abruptio can’t quite get out of its own way long enough to deliver a coherent plot and fills in the nonsensical moments with grotesque and disconcerting scenes. Between those aspects, and the undeniable, unsettling descent into the Uncanny Valley, this becomes more of an off-putting watch than an entertaining one.