Director and writer: JD Cohen
Cast: Natalia Ladyko, Panda Likoudis, Mia Bowd, Elizabeth McClean, and Jock Campbell
Running time: 13mins
We are living in a time where a killer virus has jumped the species barrier and killed millions of humans. People wear masks when they leave their homes. Governments have banned international travel and imposed curfews. The entire pattern of employment and of production has been disrupted. Up to the last days of 2019, this scenario would have belonged to the world of science fiction. In the brave new world of the pandemic, science fiction feels almost quaint and as though one had been presented with an antique foray into nostalgia. As though to emphasise its antique feel, the writer and director JD Cohen has in Paradox given the viewer a trip down sci-fi memory lane with a plot that revolves around the hoary old genre staples – mind reading, mind control and time travel. There are also some less-welcome throwbacks tagged on, however.
Paradox opens with a leather jacketed woman, Catherine, played by Natalia Ladyko, sitting in a car parked in a suburban setting, holding a camera. Catherine has a hostile expression as she takes pictures – she really is shooting. The object of Catherine’s attentions are Anne (Elizabeth McClean) and her teenage daughter, Elizabeth (Mia Dowd). Elizabeth holds a white cane, and helpfully remarks that she could not remember what the sky looked like. We learn that she has relatively recently lost her sight, but that there is hope that it might be restored.
As they unpack shopping from their own car, Anne tells Elizabeth that she has spotted a vehicle that might be tailing them (it is not a huge revelation, as Catherine is holding a comically massive zoom lens that would not look out of place in a wildlife documentary). Through their conversation and through fortuitous phone calls that Anne takes, we discover that Anne is a government investigator working on a Big Case. Anne discusses with Elizabeth threatening phone calls and letters that the pair have received about the case. So, we have a Threat, and having seen Catherine in action we know more about its immediacy than Anne and Elizabeth.
Cohen cuts to darkness and a black-clad man being picked up by a white van. He asks the driver why not just kill them to which the driver opines that they need answers first. This is not looking good for Anne and Elizabeth. We move to homely mode with the women settling down for the night. Anne finds a braille message that Elizabeth has stuck to her laptop asking her not to work too hard. There is a touching moment when Anne thanks Elizabeth for the thought. Plangent music swells – it is just the wrong side of corny, but still works to builds some background for our anticipation that something bad is about to happen.
When the nightmare inevitably begins, a well composed scene sees Elizabeth awake to an intruder in her room – we see it is the very person who has been shadowing them. Catherine efficiently captures, binds, and gags both Elizabeth and her mother before using the house’s light to signal to her colleagues outside that the job has been accomplished – in a scene that is very well shot.
The film then introduces us to the Leader, Peter, played by the suitably reptilian Panda Likoudis and the Muscle, Simon, played by Jock Campbell. The ensemble playing throughout Paradox is of a generally high standard but, for me, Campbell is the stand-out, Simon simply oozes smirking malevolence. It is also worth noting that the cinematography (fine work by Steven Willems), and the editing (by the director) generally work well at the same time.
True to his word, Peter is intent on finding some answers. Cohen shows us the interrogation and beating (generally off camera) of first Anne and the Elizabeth. Somewhat hopefully Peter demands that Anne drop the investigation. During the questioning, Catherine uses a gizmo in her wristwatch that reads minds – and you thought your Apple Watch was cool. The special effects in this sequence are excellent, forks of white lights accompanied by graph readings emit from the watch – credible and believable to the viewer.
Unfortunately, things take a turn here, as the film scrambles toward a hasty resolution that makes Q-Anon appear positively prosaic. I try not to give away major plot developments or endings when reviewing a movie but with Paradox I think it is best to outline them so as to serve as a warning to potential viewers of what they may be subjected to. As I approached the ending, the devolving attitude towards women in the film was like rummaging in a dusty attic in the hope of finding a valuable antique, only to discover a golliwog doll – a repellent relic of a time of bigotry and hatred.
The questioning of Anne reveals that the intruders work for a mysterious Senator who has a government bill coming up that will enable ‘us’, to escape the ‘shithole present’ into the future. The mind reader indicates that Anne is not going to drop the investigation which threatens this plan, and in a confused scene it appears as though Simon shoots her fatally.
Soon after, the interrogation of Elizabeth sees Catherine start to show signs of ‘weakness,’ pleading the victim’s case on the basis that Elizabeth is just a blind teenager. While this is probably a pretty thin basis for this collection of already cold-blooded killers to change their minds, Peter uses his mind control gizmo to predict the future – and from this is told that if Elizabeth is allowed to live, she will have her sight restored by cornea transplant, become radicalised,and carry out a suicide bombing that will kill 250 people, including the mysterious senator. This garbled mess of exposition seals the youngster’s fate.
At first unpersuaded of this stream of vacuous MacGuffin, Peter’s piercing gaze soon sees Catherine with gun in hand, and in the film’s most emblematic moment she shoots Elizabeth through the temple, before exclaiming: ‘it is done’. However, as Peter and Simon exchange knowing glances it becomes clear that it is not. Once more, Peter uses his digitised crystal ball to reveal that the only acceptable conclusion for the coming investigation into the night’s events would be two murders followed by a suicide.
There follows some exploration of Catherine and Peter’s relationship and a time travel episode back to happier times in the past/future. During this sequence, one of the film’s conspicuous failures of production value greatly detracts from the atmosphere, as Catherine and Peter are shown looking out of a window at a megapolis – all Futurama architecture and myriads of flying cars. However, in the unwelcome style of Aquaman the apparently futuristic Day-Glo colours make it all look worryingly like a tropical fish tank with the flying cars as the fish.
As the filmmakers grasp at conveniences to see their story tied up in its conclusion, Catherine becomes preoccupied by the fact that Peter knows that she will in, Peter’s words ‘become a martyr’ by taking the rap for the murders by committing suicide. Overwhelmed yet again by the power of Peter’s hypnotic gaze, she asks, ‘how long have you known’ before taking the gun to her own forehead. A Roy Lichtenstein BAM sounds as we fade to black.
Paradox is a chicken nugget of a film; reconstituted from minced skin, cartilage and giblets into a form which our brain might be tricked into perceiving as edible – but chock-full of distasteful and harmful fragments that are not fit for human consumption. As the audience is left to chew on the gristle of said nugget in the credits, it quickly becomes apparent that a technically competent piece of construction this may be, but Paradox is poor sci-fi.
This genre is the blankest of slates, a universe of infinite possibilities, and yet faced with that infinite, Cohen has chosen to simply replicate the very worst aspects of the here-and-now. A film where an embarrassment of technical wealth is at the characters’ disposal subsequently hinges on the assault and subsequent murder of two women, before the suicide under male pressure of another. Rather than being driven by the contingencies of the plot, this might be seen as the disturbing limitations of writer-director Cohen’s imagination.
JD Cohen has shown an aptitude in some of the basics of film making, but I would suggest that before he considers another project, he should look long and hard at his attitude to women. The target audience for short sci-fi films will include male adolescents in the process of forming their attitudes to gender and to offer up a film which has at its core violence against and control of women and where these are shown to succeed is both dangerous and reprehensible.