Chimera Strain

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 15, 2019

'Chimera Strain'
'Chimera Strain'  

Peter Quint (Henry Ian Cusick, "Lost"), the protagonist of the science / horror thriller "Chimera Strain," is a desperate scientist trying to save his children from a disease that destroys the body's organ systems. So far, his most promising work lies in raising transgenic pigs from which to harvest transplantable organs, but he could do so much more if only he had some human stem cells to work with.

Regrettably, despite his repeated pleas, that's not likely to happen. Even his powerful and sadistic former employer, Masterson (Kathleen Quinlan), can't get hold of any; as she points out, there's a "religious and political frenzy around stem cells" that overshadows even medical intervention for gruesome diseases.

Instead, Masterson suggests that Quint focus on a specific kind of jellyfish — Turritopsis, a naturally immortal creature that doesn't age. If the genetic sequence of the Turritopsis can be cracked, and the appropriate therapy developed for human use, then Quint could save his children and also — more to the point, from Masterson's view — the life of Luke (Lawrence Sampson), Masterson's horribly burned husband.

Quint has locked himself away in an abandoned industrial plant that he's converted to a laboratory. There, he labors night and day, trying to appease Masterson while creating major advances in medical technologies ranging from medical serums to "cryptobiosis" (which seems to be a form of cryogenics, the deep freezing of living subjects with a view to reviving them later on).

Quint's work is distractingly narrated by his ever-present, ever-watchful kids, Miles and Flora (Raviv Haeems and Kaavya Jayaram), who might or might not actually be in the room with him — it's hard to tell, because Quint suffers from hallucinations. The children provide much of the scant detail the film offers (much of the background remains sketchy; just what is this horrible disease? Is is ravaging people omg a global scale, or were Quint's kids merely unlucky?), but this means of delivering information feels irritatingly obvious and stylistically misplaced.

But there's more along these lines. When the kids aren't nattering away, the ghost of Quint's comatose wife, Jessie (Karishma Ahluwalia), takes him to task, warning him that being a loving father toward the children is more important than treating them like a couple of lab specimens, even if the latter course might save their lives.

Enter Charlie (Jenna Harrison), a colleague whose concern for Quint extends into romance. Alarmed by the way Quint has descended into obsession and near-madness, Charlie works to gain his trust and win access to his lab and his work. But Quint's hermetic world is dangerously unstable, and roiled already by Masterson's frequent visits, which include regular sessions of roughing up from her knuckle-dragging bodyguard. Can Quint make the breakthroughs he needs in time, despite the many obstacles in his way?

Writer-director Maurice Haeems has a compelling idea; the debate around stem cells is, after all, swept up together with the hot-button issue of abortion. (One thing the movie fails to address is the fact that not all stem cells come from human fetuses, and if Quint — ambitious when it comes to milestone bioscience technologies — really wanted to start with some foundational work, he could do worse than learning how to produce human stem cells in bulk without needing to resort to fetal sources.)

However, Haeems' script doesn't live up to the story's potential. Even at a run time of less than an hour and a half, this film is too long. Moreover, at the two-thirds mark it veers off, tonally and in plot, into a totally different direction. The directorial techniques, meantime, rely far too much on portrayals of Quint's fractured state of mind; the movie sticks so close to his distraught, disordered mental process that the story turns into a jumble. What's actually happening? What scenes came in which order?

The most successful aspect of the film's focus on Quint's hallucinations is the way Jessie hectors and hammers at him, until you almost wonder whether there's not something more like telepathy going on between Quint and his wife. "I can't see your soul," Jessie says, her demeanor half anguished and half threatening. "Your ego's in the way." There are classic tropes about the risks of playing God, and about human arrogance in the guise of science, buried in this film, but they struggle for clarity.

As does the entire production, actually, Had this been a "Black Mirror" episode — with a couple more passes at the script and a shorter run time — "Chimera Strain" could have worked better. The dark, claustrophobic production design would have been right at home alongside such Netflix offerings a "Nightflyers," for instance.

As a feature film, though, this project just hasn't got the writing behind it that would allow its drama or its creepy-science vibe to be sustained. It's an incoherent mess, and not just because its main character is utterly strung out. The film relies on mad scientist tropes (Quint pops red and blue gel caps and swigs cobalt-blue concoctions straight out of flasks), cardboard villainy (which Kathleen Quinlan actually makes sort of fun, in an overheated way), and more than a hint of misogyny. At least we can look forward to the time - not so long from now, I'd guess - when we might find this movie take its rightful place in the pantheon of late-night TV schlock. There, in the realm of sleep deprivation and half-somnolent fancies, "Chimera Strain" would probably rule.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.