“I want to see how it ends.”
There are going to be spoilers aplenty in this review of Jim Mickle’s latest, but then, there are spoilers in the trailer, so, I dunno, proceed with caution…
Jim Mickle’s weird time travel procedural opens in 2024, with an unspecified disaster and a shot of an American flag with only five stars. It’s also in Philadelphia, which it tells you a bunch of times, in a lot of different ways. The movie Philadelphia didn’t want you to know that it was set in Philadelphia as much as this one does.
From there, it skips back nearly four decades to 1988, as a concert pianist plays over seemingly unrelated shots as he, a fry cook, and a bus driver all start hemorrhaging from their eyes, nose, and mouth. At this point, not a word of dialogue has been spoken.
Naturally, the three deaths, which happens miles apart, within minutes of one-another, all turn out to be connected, and it’s one ambitious young beat cop angling to make detective (Boyd Holbrook) with a laid-back partner (Bokeem Woodbine) and an extremely pregnant wife (Rachel Keller) who begins to put the pieces together.
When he identifies the suspect linking the murders, he’s on the trail of what he takes to be a spree killer. Unfortunately, the unidentified young woman dies in a confrontation on a subway platform, leaving behind more questions than answers—including the murder weapon, a futuristic device that injects an unknown isotope into the victim’s spine, causing their brain to dissolve.
If that sounds like a lot, oh, believe me, it is, and it’s just getting started. Nine years later, the murders begin again, and it seems that the killer is the same person, somehow. Our protagonist is well on his way to figuring out that the murderer comes from the future. “We’re all going forward,” he tells his brother-in-law, illustrating his thesis with not-particularly-helpful salt-and-pepper shakers, “but she’s going backward.”
By the end of that second nine-year interval, we have our formula. The movie is going to skip forward in time, stopping every nine years as the killer makes her reappearance, and our obsessed detective’s life is going to unravel as he continues in his conviction that she is somehow traveling backward through time toward their inevitable (to her) and already over (to him) encounter on the subway platform.
While she stays the same, he and the people in his life get older, thanks to unconvincing aging effects. It’s undeniably engaging to watch the film’s Terminator-in-reverse story unfold, but the end result is remarkably undercooked, and the big “reveal” is an anticlimax that is surprising only to the characters, as everyone watching has figured it out long before.
For all its highfalutin’ nonsense, In the Shadow of the Moon simply isn’t as profound as it seems to think it is. The symbolism is mostly too overt and on-the-nose—our protagonist is named Lockhart, but everyone calls him Locke, as in John Locke, one of the founders of social contract theory. The film’s villainous “Real America Movement” sends out its manifestos in books about U.S. presidents. Locke buys his pregnant wife a Möbius strip bracelet that he ultimately ends up giving to his daughter instead when his wife dies giving birth, as we know she’s going to long before it happens.
A lot of movies that came out this year have worn their politics on their sleeves, and Moon is no exception, even if it buries the lede of its political angle until we are several iterations into the film’s every-nine-years cycle.
The manifesto of the “Real America Movement” uses buzz words like “white race” and “globalist elites,” while the protests that grip the city in the wake of the “Market Street Murders” are an obvious parallel to Black Lives Matter.
Yet the film’s message that hate “drowned out the best of us and amplified the worst” seems as oddly toothless as it is timely, just as the idea that civil war could be prevented simply by killing a handful of people, rather than addressing the systemic problems that drove the war in the first place, seems strangely naïve for such a bloody picture.
In the Shadow of the Moon may have its heart in the right place, but it lacks the courage of its convictions, and the sharp, politically astute bite of other films that have jammed social messages together with genre trappings on the big and small screens this year. It’s certainly trying, often too hard, but it never comes together the way it thinks it does.
Early on, we see our protagonist literally break a few eggs—you know how the saying goes—as he’s making his wife breakfast in bed. She then tells him that he makes the worst pancakes. That’s kind of this movie, in a nutshell.
Or, perhaps a better way to sum up Moon’s well-meaning failures: This story about a biracial woman who literally sacrifices herself in an excruciating mission to save the world from racial hatred gets sidelined so that we can watch the sad dad feels of a white cop whose black partner gets fridged halfway through. It’s 2019. Read the room a little better, In the Shadow of the Moon…
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.