Adventures in Streaming: Await Further Instructions

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Await Further Instructions, set in England, is about Nick, a young man who brings his Indian-British girlfriend Annji home at Christmas to meet his family. Clearly he has been distant from them for a while; his mother is overjoyed to see him, because he hasn’t been home in so long. His father seems cold but not unfriendly. His grandfather is blatantly racist and a bit senile. His very pregnant sister and her boyfriend are happy enough to see Nick and Annji, but things are tense, especially after Grandpa makes offensive comments about Annji’s race and other topics.

Annji is suffering from allergies or perhaps a head-cold, a fact that suddenly matters when a mysterious black wall is erected around the house and the television tells them to stay indoors and await further instructions. There seems to be no way to break down the black wall (although some of them try), and when the television tells them that one of them is “infected” and should be isolated, they immediately turn on sniffling Annji, forcing her to lock herself in a bedroom.

Tensions continue to build while Nick’s father supports the wisdom of what he assumes is the government speaking to them through the television messages; he compares his cooperation with the shelter-in-place directives of World War II that were so important for survival.

The situation deteriorates until all members of the family are fighting with one another, some of them have died, and Nick becomes desperate to escape with Annji.

Visually, Await Further Instructions is quite engaging, deftly capturing the surreal feeling of being told via typical emergency channels (like the TV) that “something” has happened but not being told what it is. The black barrier is inexplicable, but Nick’s father suggests that the government has technology – a reasonable supposition, I guess. The acting is solid, to the point that you kind of experience the awkwardness of family members saying embarrassing things and the stomach-churning difficulty of spending time with the parent you like while avoiding the parent you don’t. The characters’ interactions are very believable, so as a psychological study, the film works very well.

Unfortunately, the sci-fi/horror nature of the unexplained black house-cozy and the increasingly sinister messages from the TV mean that a psychological study won’t really answer the questions viewers have, and the initial good balance of the two themes is completely destroyed by the ending.

The ending offers a weird “explanation” for the wall, the TV messages, and the bizarre tubes suddenly attached to the newborn baby … but other than backing away from the house and showing how the whole neighbourhood has been transformed into some kind of alien ant-farm, we don’t get a clear idea of what the purpose was here or how the family inside played into that purpose. Are they in fact aliens? For all we know it is the government, and the government has turned on the neighbourhood for some reason. If it’s aliens, are they taking over? Messing with us in the alien equivalent of cow-tipping? Doing their own psychological study? They obviously needed the baby for something, but we don’t know what – is the baby a new messiah? A new Adam to some alien Eve? A snack? We don’t know.

Even as a psychological study it falls down in the end, because none of the issues addressed throughout the film are ever really resolved one way or the other or even discussed by the characters. It’s just a nightmare holiday with family that gets worse because sci-fi-reasons. It’s just a possible-alien-takeover that gets worse because dysfunctional-family-holidays. Other films have balanced two themes before with great success – Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example, where the spy-action-thriller is really about their marriage, or Shaun of the Dead, where the zombie film is really about Shaun getting his life in order. This film does not succeed. It ends up just being neither fish nor fowl with an ending so ambiguous that you wonder if you accidentally fast-forwarded over important plot points.

And it’s really a shame, because the atmosphere was so compelling, all the people acted so well, and the effects were creative and quality; this could have been both a really interesting explore into how people deal with the unknown and a suspenseful, creepy sci-fi/horror whodunit … but ultimately it was neither.

Plus there was a very pregnant woman whose baby had some mystical significance that we never discover – it’s just an overused trope of convenience at that point, and therefore just annoying.

Why did the baby have tubes put in? Was it that the TV was becoming sentient … maybe? If it’s so smart that it can take over the neighbourhood and build impenetrable barriers, why did it pick green arcade font? So many unanswered questions …

popcorn icon 5 out of 10