Prisoner Isaac Havelock wakes up on board a space pod to find out he’s been condemned to life on Earth’s first colony with no way home. He realises he’s not alone as he’s greeted by the mysterious Alana Skill – together they start piecing together what’s happened and try to plot a course back home.
Whisper it – but in 2044 we’re sending prisoners across the galaxy to found new colonies, whether they want to go or not. I say whisper it, you never know when the government will leap on an idea that was meant to be either a joke or a dystopian “it could never happen” nightmare and declare it their new policy.
Prisoner Isaac Havelock (Johnny Sachon) wakes up in a cell-like pod which is trying to dock with a larger spaceship. He’s not alone – cellmate Alana Skill (Lottie Tolhurst) is already awake, and there’s also automated emergency assistant Eva (Kathryn Vinclaire), the future of Alexa, part helper and part guard.
They’re soon “joined” by the voice of Ground Control (Scott McFall), alternately calming them down and pumping them for information about their predicament; and Ken Bradley (Michael Condron), host of a news magazine show on KNL TV.
The reason for all this sudden interest in two space convicts is a massive explosion outside their pod window. The ship they were docking with, that was to take them and other prisoners across the galaxy to the colony they were to build, has been destroyed and there’s no guarantee of rescue.
The year is 2044, the Earth’s resources are depleted and the planet is massively overpopulated. The first mournfully beautiful shots are of a blue-tinged London skyline of soaring tower blocks, monuments to a failing society. It’s a clear message that as a species we are now forced to look upwards; a colony on a far-off planet is scheduled for completion in 2051. Prisoners are the test subjects, blasting off on a four year voyage to establish the colony and spend the rest of their lives living on their new home planet, hopefully not like in Alien 3.
Space is a popular location for low budget films: small casts, tiny, industrial-looking sets. It’s often the visual effects that let them down. Not here though – writer-director Luke Armstrong has a background in VFX (he’s worked on the 007 franchise, Marvel movies and many more) and it shows. For a little indie, shot in just 14 days with post-production all done remotely thanks to the pandemic, Solitary boasts impressive imagery, whether it’s our familiar planet from orbit, the calamity that befalls them, or Earth-bound flashbacks.
The script is strong enough that the film doesn’t have to lean too heavily on its visuals though, with pointed nods to our instant disaster-as-entertainment culture; goldfish bowl-like social media existence; and populist politics and punditry.
I’d like to say that when to comes to Isaac and Alana’s survival, all bets are off. Though in an indication of how this calamity is treated, back on Earth people are actually gambling on whether they will make it back alive.
Armstrong links the old and the new with impressive fluency: a flashback to a judge sentencing Isaac to “transportation to the colonies” is instantly followed with their pod being launched vertically from England’s green and pleasant land into space. Not only does little change over the centuries but the line from then to 2044 couldn’t be clearer.
Armstrong also knows when to move us away from the pod, the claustrophobia and all that institutional grey. We get almost sepia-tinged flashbacks of Isaac’s life, including what feels like a literal breath of fresh air on a blowy autumn day.
Sometimes the low budget shows, with less talky scenes rushed, and an air of 1980s BBC scifi show. Overall though this is a skilfully-constructed and gripping warning for our times. Armstrong refuses to give us all the answers, which – in an age of glib soundbites – is refreshing.
Ken Bradley is the perfect modern news-as-entertainment talking head, supporting then turning on the subjects of his story (he also bore an unfortunate resemblance to Simon Day so I kept expecting a Fast Show sketch). Initially interrogating a pundit about the morality of forcing prisoners to found the colony, he then nurtures Isaac with faux concern before taunting him live on air about the crime that sent him into space. “Why should you be saved?” he eventually bluntly asks, as if this is an episode of Big Brother.
Alana begins as an enigma but gradually reveals herself. We know she’s got an agenda but for a long time not what that is – or what she is. Psychopath? Justice department plant? Hologram? Android? Serial killer? Or simply a woman forced to show no weakness because she’s stuck in a pod for four years with a convicted, male criminal? It makes a change to have a female character who is never remotely bothered about making her male counterpart feel better, or safer, or valued.
Tolhurst is excellent, nuanced and mercurial – Alana is shifty, duplicitous and self-serving without ever straying into camp villainess territory. Alana is very determined, even stoical. Sachon’s Isaac isn’t naive but he is believably befuddled and unable to both work out how to get back to Earth and work out Alana.
Throughout it all is a bleak seam of humour. Eva is forever reminding them they only have ten calls per month. It starts off seeming a miserly allowance, especially as Ken’s unasked-for, viciously needling calls from Earth count towards the total – though it isn’t long before Isaac, berated, used and manipulated by everyone around him, is praying they’re soon used up.
Read my (spoilery) article Solitary: did they make it home?
Solitary is out in US cinemas and on demand on 24 September 2021. It’s already available on blu-ray, DVD and on digital in the UK:
Watch the trailer now: