Syfy original properties have a fairly well-deserved reputation of being horrible, barrel-scraping disasters. Though, a large part of that was the cable network’s strategy to make up for low production values with purposeful camp and self-deprecating acknowledgment that their output isn’t exactly high art. However, hope has recently been renewed in the network as in recent years they’ve made a renewed commitment to quality science fiction, with television programming that apparently lives up to that promise. So I had decent expectations for Atomica, a hard sci-fi thriller for an era beyond Sharknado and Crocosaurus. But while Atomica certainly takes itself more seriously than the previous generation of Syfy programming, it can’t be said to be any better and isn’t nearly as much fun.
In the near distant future, all the world’s power is provided by a nuclear energy company called Auxilisun. When a remote power plant’s communication system goes down, safety inspector Abby Dixon (Riverdale’s Sarah Habel) is dispatched to investigate and repair the malfunction. Upon arrival, she meets Robinson (Dominic Monaghan), one of the base’s two maintenance personnel. He claims that his associate, Dr. Zek, has left the facility and doesn’t know when to expect him back. Abby begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems, however, as Robinson displays suspicious behavior and doesn’t seem to completely understand the mechanics of the power plant.
Atomica does almost nothing to disguise the fact that it’s an 80-minute movie with perhaps 20 minutes worth of plot. After arriving at the station, nearly half the runtime is spent with Abby and Robinson speaking in hushed and serious tones in dark, metallic corridors with nothing to provide any sense of tension or stakes to the proceedings. Sure, Dr. Zek is missing, and Robinson is a slightly erratic figure, but Abby never finds him threatening, and Monaghan’s performance almost never rises to the occasion to make Robinson appear more than harmless. Without stakes, the central mystery dangles limply while procedural technobabble drips from the two characters’ mouths.
When the film finally does pick up the pace in the second half, it functions as little more than a series of twists that neither had set-up nor appreciable pay-off, so all the double crossings and revelations don’t function as anything more than the semblance of intrigue. This is a shame too, because there is a plethora of potential subtext in unchecked corporate monopoly, reliance on a singular energy source, and the consequences of pure utilitarianism, but none of those themes are even remotely explored–if they are even mentioned at all. Instead, we’re treated to padding to Abby’s backstory that neither serves to make her character interesting nor gives her lack of a character arc any meaning.
The only saving grace of the film is that Monaghan is a lively enough actor that he is occasionally amusing even as the script and direction give him nothing to work with, but that is a very, very small consolation in this tedious slog. Syfy may have recommitted itself to quality science fiction programming, but Atomica is only one of those things, and it’s only just barely that.