So, whether it’s called PORTAL or whether it’s called DOORS; either way this is a pretty interesting film even if it doesn’t entirely work. I’ve seen it referred to as an anthology film but, for me, it’s a bit cleverer than that. It may have the appearance of being three (or maybe four) separate short films that relate to a common idea but, in fact, it’s telling a single story from three (or four) different points of view and directed by three different directors – Samen Kesh, Jeff Deson and Dugan O’Neal under the overall creative direction of Kesh (they also all do a bit of acting in the film, but let’s not go there) . The story it tells is about what happens when millions of (we assume) alien portals or doors appear all over the world exuding an almost irresistible attraction to we humans pulling us closer and closer until it seems about half the population of Earth is drawn into them and no-one seems to know why or what happens to people on the other side.
We start with a segment called Lockdown in which we meet a bunch of high school teenagers and Mr Johnson (Christopher Black) their disengaged teacher in a scene that feels somewhat reminiscent of The Breakfast Club. There’s something in the air amongst these teenagers, especially with Ash (Kathy Khanh) who spends her essay writing time sketching a cartoon of Liz (Julianne Collins) along with some intervention from Jake (Aric Floyd) the boy up the back who can’t resist passing notes. These are good characters even if what they’re doing is pretty run-of-the-mill. At least it is until the Mr Johnson gets a call and rushes from the room and the sirens start blaring as the school is plunged into lockdown. But why? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is the moment when the alien doors start to appear although we only get a sense of it from the scraps of information the kids start to piece together and the roar of fighter jets overhead. (at least, we assume they’re fighter jets) Of course, they eventually encounter one of the doors – an oddly furry looking portal that seems alive and speaks to them in ambiguous sounds translated by title cards. The visual design and animation of the doors themselves is very effective even if the ‘subtitling’ cards are an intrusion.
Then we jump, in both time and place. In echoes of Marvel’s Endgame, we learn that a big chunk of the population has gone missing, courtesy of the irresistible force of the doors. In an effort to better understand these ‘visitors’ a group of young adventurers known as Knockers (which is the title of the second segment) are decked out in space suits and sent into the portals to try to find out what the hell’s going on. We follow Vince (Josh Peck) and Becky (Lina Esco) into the labyrinthine world beyond the furry entrance which is both dreamlike and nightmarish at the same time, clearly referencing things familiar to both of them but messing with their perception of environments they think they know. It’s a clever sequence that has echoes of Mark Z Danielewski’s mind bending book House of Leaves (get a copy and ‘read’ it if you haven’t already) and, once again, is quite oblique in what it communicates to us about the motivation behind the appearance of these doors.
Then, in Lamaj, we take another jump, this time into the woods where hermit-like scientist Jamal (Kyp Malone) is making progress in his efforts to communicate with the doors until good old fashioned human stupidity intrudes on his scientific retreat. The fact that the title of this segment if Jamal’s name in reverse feels like a clue, but it never really pays off.
And finally, as I’ve already suggested, there’s a kind of fourth segment that’s referred to as the Interstitials (I had to look that up – it’s the web-based advertisements that appear before, during or after the narrative content). These appear throughout the movie but this final one is more substantial and focused around Alan (Darius Levanté) who is trying to make sense (as is the audience) of the fragmented story we’ve been watching.
As much as I like this narrative structure, I do find, at the same time, that it can work against the film in the sense that any investment we make in the characters results in unrequited storytelling. In the case of the teenagers in Lockdown, for instance, I really wanted to know the outcome of their story but, like the other the segments, it sacrifices resolution to a higher level story arc and as much as I was sure those characters would return for some denouement, my prediction proved sadly wrong. I guess it’s the risk in this kind of storytelling. On the one hand it presents us with a puzzle that we can enjoy trying to solve whilst on the other hand it keeps making narrative promises that it never intended to keep.
Having said all that, it’s a really well-made, low budget film. The performances are strong and the writers and actors often make interesting choices in how they navigate what could easily be little more than derivative work. The visual effects work well (even if the title cards are a bit annoying) and John Beltrán ‘s music provides just the right atmosphere. In the end, it makes the best of its opportunities to pose some provocative philosophical and intellectual questions about our existence and the nature of our evolution. It never reaches the profound levels of a film like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in how it tackles these big questions of life the universe and everything, but it does make a good fist of it and succeeds in leaving us with some questions that are well worth pondering.
Signature Entertainment and Defiant Screen Entertainment present Portal on Digital Platforms & DVD 2nd June