An Arabic post-apocalyptic thriller about survivors fighting over the little water that’s left? The pitch alone is enough for “The Worthy” to make one intrigued.
Filmed in Bucharest, financed in the United Arab Emirates and directed by a UAE native/London Film School grad, it’s compelling, competent, and so overfamiliar as to be utterly generic and forgettable.
But the very idea of such a film, that it played in the Arab world, is at least as compelling as the story told on the screen — or it would be, if it took bigger chances and aimed higher.
Civilization has collapsed, evildoers have poisoned most of the world’s fresh water and without that, only scattered pockets of humanity can cling to life, never venturing far from their dwindling supply.
Eissa (Mahmoud Al Atrash, good) narrates our story, relating how his truck-driving dad (Samer al Masri) once picked up a hitchhiker who “saw it coming.” “The Seer” warned “Beware the black flags,” and feel free to remember how many terror cells have used black standards. “Their only loyalty is to themselves.”
So Shuaib, the father, grabbed Eissa and his sister Maryam (Rakeen Saad) and, with a few others, established themselves in a place with water. It’s a ruined airplane factory, with a water tank that sustains the 10 people holed up there.
Strangers approach, and wary but compassionate Shuaib takes the bait — literally. It takes other strangers to rescue him from the predators who chained up a woman to lure him out.
Some mistrust Gulbin (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a scarred Kurdish woman who doesn’t speak Arabic. And none trust Mussa (Samer Ismail), the wild-eyed man who killed to save Shuaib, but isn’t about to surrender his knife when he’s allowed inside.
“This knife and I are old friends,” he purrs to the leader of this “community.” The warning bells have been ringing in the viewer’s head, and must be in Shuaib’s as his “guest” starts prattling on about the need to “separate the strong from the weak,” “the worthy” from “the unworthy.”
Murder and chaos ensue. The siblings must stick together, “leading” and trying to outsmart a homicidal monster, who likes to make booby-traps.
Screenwriter Vikran Weet (“Darkness Rising”) goes to some pains to suggest that the traditional Shuaib has kept tenets of Islamic religious practice alive among his charges. Maryam has the interest of a young man in their group, but he’s got to get her father’s acceptance before anything progresses. Burials, hygiene and “hospitality” have survived centuries among the Bedouin, why wouldn’t they endure beyond the collapse of civilization?
Director Mostafa (“City of Life”) stages some suspenseful moments, and fritters away the chance for more in a story that morphs into a variation of every post-Apocalyptic thriller ever. “The Worthy” has more going for it than the “Maze Runner/Divergent/Hunger Games” YA-oriented fare, where the youth are the hope IF they can to escape/win this contest/fall in love. The stakes are high but the characters’ life-and-death struggle have a perfunctory video game feel.
The limitations on the female characters and a bleak/bleaker/bleakest third act hamper “The Worthy.” Even as the booby-traps, torture and murder — think “Saw” lite — grow more elaborate, one gets the sense that this is a movie scripted with one arm culturally and thematically tied behind one’s back.
The over-familiar tropes of the genre, dissent within, a power struggle built on “Selfishness is what it’s going to take from now on” aren’t enough to recommend the film. And the novelty of its characters, setting and cultural subtext doesn’t compensate for that.
But it’s polished and smart enough to to give one hope that Around the World with Netflix will have more entries from a part of the world not known for sci-fi or action films with coed casts.
MPAA Rating: TV-14, gruesome violence
Cast: Mahmoud Al Atrash, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Rakeen Saad, Samer Ismail and Samer al Masri.
Credits: Directed by Ali F. Mostafa, script by Vikram Weet. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:39