Here is another film released this month, after zombie flick Final Days/ Alone/ Pandemic, potentially hamstrung by conflicting titles. Portal (aka Doors – if you are going to waver on a name, don’t make them both painfully generic) also faces confusion over a very similar setup to the 2019 film Portals. Both are anthology features exploring the sudden appearance of strange extra-terrestrial portals, and the effect they have on those who encounter them. Confusing for sure. However, the earlier film embraces the squishy delights of body horror. Portal (or Doors) is cerebral sci-fi that is impressive in ambition but a decidedly mixed bag in terms of quality.
The basic scenario is the arrival of an alien presence on earth. This manifests as over a million portals appearing all over the globe, rippling and black like the iron filings in an Etch-A-Sketch. The four stories feature a wide range of people and take place at chronologically progressive moments through what turns out to be an occupation, albeit one of unclear purpose.
The idea of an anthology connected by the central thread of one monumental event is a good one. Whereas many films composed of individual tales come with a considerable narrative lurch, a solid through-line feels beneficial to the overall tone, even if the segments themselves differ in narrative and quality. Imagine that Arrival had focused on a different group of people interacting with four of the alien craft instead of highlighting Amy Adams and co. and you will kind of get the idea.
Another nice touch is that we get the sense of progress throughout the four stories. “Lockdown,” directed by Jeff Desom, takes place on day one. Four students, isolated Breakfast Club style in a classroom, encounter a door in their school corridor as they listen to the initial reports from elsewhere across the planet. “Knockers,” directed by Saman Kesh, takes place a few weeks in, as three volunteers enter a door to the other side. Dugan O’Neal’s “Lamaj” follows an isolated man carrying out illegal aural experiments on one door some months later. The final untitled segment is an internet call between a broadcaster and an unsettling interviewee who has been bewitched by the doors.
The problem is that sense of linear progression is the only clarity that Portal offers. The film wallows in the confusion wrought by the visitations. While this would be understandable during “Lockdown” in which the unfolding drama plays amusing counterpoint to the tropes of the teen movie, there should be at least a hint of motive as we inch along the timeline. While “Knockers” (try not to snigger when that title flashes up on the screen in massive letters) offers some highly creative visuals and an oppressive atmosphere reminiscent of a lo-fi take on Alex Garland’s mind-bending Annihilation, Portal too often mistakes obfuscation for tension, and the audience interest will wane come the realisation that investment will lead to naught. Closing on what is essentially a Zoom call given what has gone before is also a huge dramatic error.
Once the central mystery is cemented as thus, there is little to engage with. The brevity of the film – a mere 81 minutes – leaves little space for the stories to take root, and there are no exceptional performances. “Lockdown” provides stock student characters, while “Knockers” is entranced by its own visual style – imagine an Art Nouveau Event Horizon – rather than its intrepid human explorers. Even Jamal (Kyp Malone), the most fully realised character throughout, is defined entirely by his obsession with the whispering, seductive voices in the door.
As an anthology, Portal has some neat ideas but soon runs out of steam, especially as the high point comes in the second segment, and it never comes close to reaching that level of flair again. It appears the three filmmakers assumed that as long as there is chronological consistency the rest will fall into place. They have sadly assumed wrongly. The premise should act as a spine for the individual stories to branch off like ribs, but there is simply too much of a jumble of quality – in the filmmaking and the writing – to actually achieve the convergence of ideas it was aiming for.
Available on DVD and On-Demand from Mon 19 Apr 2021