Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: With the Hugh Jackman vehicle Reminiscence headed for theaters and streaming, we’re thinking back on other sci-fi noirs.
The biggest shift in sci-fi noir came after 1986’s Aliens, which gave the movie magpies the impression that all one needed to break through was a hangar, warehouse, or factory in appropriate levels of industrial decay, a lot of military-grade firepower, and a competent monster. Countless films over the pre-CG intervening years used that template to claim video-store dollars and late-night cable TV eyeballs, earning their place in the subconscious of viewers drawn in by metallic textures and grey-blue color palettes.
What distinguishes 1992’s Split Second for any modern viewer is its environmental immediacy. Set in 2008 London, it unfolds in a drowned world where climate change and pollution have restructured the way everyone is living. The floodwaters (40 days and 40 nights worth, the opening crawl tells us, already blending the Biblical and the scientific before the film even kicks into gear) continue to rise, the rats and their myriad of mutating plagues scurrying up from below, threatening the parts of the city that the water hasn’t taken yet. The film literalizes the environmental chaos that classics like Blade Runner tiptoe around, but that’s part of its main approach: taking any subtext and underlining it with profane explosions of gunfire, Jackson Pollock-style gore, and every accepted piece of narrative shorthand propping up every police procedural and authoritarian action film that emerged since the ’70s.
Rutger Hauer is there, presiding over the film with a devilish energy, flashing his badge at a dog and stopping to catch his breath while lighting a cigar. If his rightfully legendary Roy Batty is one of the enduring portrayals of aspirational humanity, here he gets right to the hollow construction of macho individualism and tears into it like a sandwich. “Now he lives on anxiety, coffee, and chocolate,” the tough captain says of him, before moving from dyspeptic to apoplectic. Even before there’s murder in the air, nobody is allowed to be anything close to conciliatory or mellow. Hauer sets the tone.
Director Tony Maylam, who made the horror masterpiece The Burning a decade earlier, offers a potent atmosphere of danger and apocalyptic portent. Without it, Split Second could work as a devastating comedy; regardless of one’s affinity for double-Y chromosome cop shenanigans, it’s hard not to have some affection for a film that stages an entire action setpiece around the reveal that a DNA-unstable ratbeast (and possible demon) has a giant gun as well. The movie does a fine job of shifting genres at pretty much each reel change, drawing strength from its assembled narrative strains (gumshoeing, serial killer profiling, monster on the loose, science mystery, peekaboo Biblical story, stoner cosmology) and keeping the pace brisk. Ultimately a bit silly and saddled with a monster that echoes the H.R. Giger poster art for 1985’s Future-Kill (even as it uses its moist atmosphere like a Tsai Ming-Liang film), Split Second tries hard in a way that a lot of contemporary B-pictures don’t. It scratches that tech-noir itch, providing some dream fuel in the process.
Availability: Split Second is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, The Roku Channel, TUBI, and Plex. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally.