On a typical Wednesday night in the satirical techno-future of 2028, while the rest of Los Angeles riots over the price of water, business continues as usual at the Hotel Artemis, a members-only underground hospital (or “darkroom,” in the movie’s cyberpunk parlance) with grungy, century-old art deco décor. The agoraphobic Nurse Jean (Jodie Foster) jogs the dim hallways with an old-fashioned physician’s bag, tending to her “guests” with the help of her orderly and head-smasher, the formidable Everest (Dave Bautista). Once upon a time, she ran a free clinic, but now her clientele are killers, fugitives, other lost souls. Entrance to the Hotel Artemis requires a chip implant that leaves a wrist scar, further adding to its purgatorial ambiance. In this kind of bottled-up environment, it’s only a matter of time before someone will bring unwanted trouble. In this case, it’s a couple of regulars, the bank-robbing brothers Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) and Lev (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), who check in after a botched heist, having unwittingly swiped a pen filled with diamonds—property of the famously ruthless Malibu mobster Orian Franklin (Jeff Goldblum), “the Wolf King,” whose motorcade is speeding toward the Artemis after a minor assassination attempt.
The directorial debut of Drew Pearce, who previously worked on the scripts for Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Hotel Artemis has enough derivative concepts (think John Wick’s Continental in the world of The Purge sequels), sci-fi ideas, and characters to keep the movie zipping from room to room before the inevitable showdown. There are two other guests, referred to strictly by the suites they’re staying in: “Acapulco” (Charlie Day), a coked-up arms dealer with blatantly Trumpian politics and an escape plan to Mexico, over the border wall; and “Nice” (Sofia Boutella), a high-priced hit woman who specializes in “eye contact kills,” snuff videos recorded via corneal implant so her clients can jerk off to their enemies’ demise. Everybody here has a backstory, and hers is a romantic past with Sherman. There are more complications: Lev needs a new liver that won’t clone right; the Wolf King’s milksop idiot son (Zachary Quinto) is welding the Hotel Artemis’ secret street entrances shut so his daddy can get exclusive treatment; and Nurse Jean has dragged in a wounded police officer, Morgan (Jenny Slate), breaking one of her own rules.
The Artemis has a rat-maze quality and plenty of concealed doors, and the movie never gives the impression that it knows where all of the characters might be at any given time. Regardless, they’re defined less by where they move than by what they wear on their feet, with close-ups of shoes a recurring a motif: Nurse Jean’s ragged sneakers; Nice’s Doc Martens; the Wolf King’s leather sandals; Morgan’s boots, which give her away as a cop. Pearce has a sense of humor about exposition (“Yeah, yeah, I know what nanites are,” cracks a character, saving the viewer an explanation), but seems to recognize that the setting is the best thing Hotel Artemis has going for it: the glitchy newscasts about mega-corporations and riot-control contractors, the consumer gadgets that are just stupid enough to be believable (e.g. Choppr, the Uber of helicopters), the black-market Japanese and Russian tech. (The groaner: a generator marked “Covfefe” in Cyrillic.)
We’ve seen it all before in movies and video games, but the packaging is slick and hard to resist; any sci-fi crime movie with moody camerawork by Chung Chung-hoon, a Cliff Martinez score, a cast this strange, and an original end-credits ballad by Father John Misty (also a cast member) is begging to be watched, regardless of actual content or the messiness of the action scenes. Underneath the bric-a-brac is a familiar narrative of self-help and moving on, made interesting by Nurse Jean’s bag of Chekhov’s gizmos (microwave scalpels, baby elephant tranquilizer, etc.) and the overqualified performances of Brown, Henry, and especially Foster, a commanding actor whose film roles have become too rare. (The last was almost five years ago, in Elysium, another bleak dystopia of haves versus have-nots.) She makes such a believable figure of frazzled care that one is almost inclined to overlook the artificiality of the character. But the camera betrays Pearce’s true interests. It crawls through dilapidated hallways; frames peeling murals, musty furnishings, and concealed buttons; follows a trail of blood. Sometimes, a story is just an excuse to build a set.