Low-rent sci-fi can usually go one of two ways: smart and subtle, pinned to a manageable concept, or washed out by cheap, schlocky special effects. Luckily, bare-bones single-location thriller Domain opts for the former, running off a clever (if not entirely original) plot, with a fresh set of characters and a thoroughly involving central idea.
Rather than wasting his limited resources on another unnecessarily loud outbreak thriller about people hunting for food and murdering each other in desperation, director Nathaniel Atcheson has opted for something a little more close to home: humanity’s innate desire to be social. And for the most part, it opens up plenty of exciting new doors.
The entire film moves almost entirely through conversation, driving narrative with the interactions the core seven share either directly, or behind each others’ backs. It’s a post-apocalyptic world we haven’t quite seen before, but one which is no doubt a lot more likely than some of the more expansive ideas that have hit mainstream media. Survival for once, isn’t about food, or water, or finding protection from renegade cannibals or forest-dwelling monsters; in Domain the only way the characters can live on and remain in anyway hopeful, is by communicating.
But, as sturdy as said backbone is, it’s obviously not enough to power an entire film alone. Conversation needs direction, and much of Atcheson’s words surround mystery; not, as you might expect, the mystery of the brazenly retro-futuristic, non-government support agency who built the bunkers in question though. Nor the mystery of the very thing that put them underground in the first place: an outbreak of an entirely fictional type of flu that goes oddly uncontested.
Atcheson builds his own riddles that, although have some grounding in the post-apocalyptic setting (particularly in the tell-all final act), are for the most part, instead a reflection of the relationships between the main group.
And this is where the majority of Domain’s main creativity comes from, letting the quietly ingenious production design slink into the background rather than tell the core story. Everything from the layout of the bunkers to their 70s-esque off-brown colouring has very clearly been carefully planned and helps to mirror the isolation of the plot’s main tension a great deal. But Atcheson is clever not to ever dwell on the setting alone.
We start several years down the line, in the middle of the film’s inciting incident; there’s little in the way of world set-up, and even less in terms of character introductions. Atcheson leaves us to simply fit the pieces together ourselves and while it’s certainly a risk (one that very few bigger, studio movies take), here it works wonderfully, helping the world of Domain and its inhabitants themselves feel very much lived-in.
There are certainly some bumps along the way though. Clear favouritism among the characters’ shared screen-time means one or two barely get past being one-dimensional plot devices, and the reveal-driven finale that ties all of their thoughts and fears together, is little more than a jerry-rigged exposition dump.
Eagled-eyed (and eared) film fans will likely guess the ending quick enough, and certain character motivations aren’t quite as subtle as Atcheson seems to think, but for a single-location thriller, Domain never teeters towards boring, and above-all, there’s a very understated sense of scope here. Even after the last twist is dealt, Domain leaves plenty of moral questions ticking and always leads with some sense of hope at every corner.
Far from the usually bleak survival dramas that pad out a great deal of the outbreak genre, Atcheson’s film is just different enough to be involving, with a script that holds back just enough to remain thrilling, and that never lets its tiny budget effect the core drama.
As far as low-rent, high-concept sci-fi goes, Domain is about as well-balanced as it comes, fighting past some obvious set-backs to drive home a small, yet refreshing take on post-apocalyptic survival.
Domain was screened as part of SCI-FI-LONDON 2017.