“Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then,
Sayin, ‘Hey I’ve been havin’ the same old dreams,
But mine was a little different you see.
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me.
I didn’t see you around.’” — Bob Dylan, “Talking World War III Blues”
Portals begins with a white on black super-imposed title that portentously states, “On August 5th 2020, an undisclosed research facility successfully creates the world’s first active black hole.” Then, in three separate episodes, Portals depicts the effects of this scientific “miracle,” although from the start its existence signals nefarious doings. Once the characters become aware that this black hole is anything but benign, and realizing they can’t combat its effects, characters pass through the stages of reasoning, then despairing, and finally resigning to the inevitability that in one way or another, they all are doomed.
The consequences of this experiment gone awry are first indicated by a close-up of a TV monitor depicting live coverage of highways choked with cars trying to escape inevitable destruction, although the destination of these motorized hoards isn’t clear.
Images of a mass exodus from populous regions have been used often in doomsday sci-fi to depict human helplessness and vulnerability, and popular novels and films have used this convention for decades. Some of the more popular examples include 1954’s “Godzilla” and the two film adaptations of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” And we can easily cite the Bible for more ancient descriptions of mass hysteria in the face of a damning religious or supernatural judgment.
Portals, an anthology-styled film with three common-themed episodes, (how humans respond to a calamitous, unpredictable, cosmic occurrence) diverges from the typical structure of sci-fi anthology movies. For one thing, “The Other Side” episode, directed by Greg Hale, is divided into several units of action that appear intermittently through the film. It, along with the two other major episodes, “Call Center,” directed by Eduardo Sanchez, and “Sarah,” directed by Timo Tjahjanto, are bookended by two short interrelated segments that reveal the scientists that worked on the secretive black hole project. In the first of these segments, James Avery (Dare Emmanuel, “The Beyond”) nervously tells an unseen interviewer that he’s not at liberty to discuss the experiment nor its effects, while the concluding segment, one that ends the entire film, shows Avery and a fellow scientist falling victim to their own creation.
Because a true black hole cannot be seen—attributed to the fact that its gravity is so powerful that it draws light into its center — the film depicts the Earth attacked by an enemy that’s only observable indirectly, that is, through the destructive evidence of its behavior. The result is that Earth’s defenses, whether personal or global, lack the ability to deter it. And because a black hole arises as a quirk in the physical laws of the universe, it is impossible to judge, at first, whether it’s malevolent, although it’s definitely calamitous. Malevolent or not, sentient or not, does it matter if it destroys life on Earth as we know it?
Once it’s been established that the Earth is being upended by an invisible black hole, artifacts begin showing up in the shape of tall, looming, three dimensional metallic doors. When these “portals” arrive, the characters are faced with the question of whether they are inert or sentient. Eventually, these door-shaped anomalies entice a number of characters from each episode to walk through them as though they contain a power similar the one belonging to the Sirens that mesmerized a number of Odysseus’s men. It’s impossible to know what lies through these portals, so those that decide to enter them do not know whether they will find safety. However, a common thread that runs through each episode is that the characters that do go through these portal have the common fear that they will forever lose touch with their loved ones if they don’t take the quantum leap.
The motifs of each episode overlap, although the setting varies. “Call Center,” as its name suggests, is located in a windowless emergency 911 center with a full bank of operators who gradually become overwhelmed by pleas from desperate callers who are missing loved ones. However, the staff become increasingly frustrated in taking calls when they realize they too are victims in this emergency. “The Other Side” depicts an affluent family at home on a bright, clear day, preparing to flee from the foreboding disaster they’ve seen unfolding on TV. Adam, the husband (Neil Hopkins, “Skyline”) and his wife, Kate (Ruby O’Donnell), persuade their daughter that they must leave their home and take refuge at Kate’s mother-in-law, who lives in a more remote region. Why the family believes it will find safety in one place rather than another seems like simple wish-fulfillment, a desperate measure suggesting “Any port in a storm.” But the omnipresence of the invisible threat suggests that there are no ports.
The episode entitled “Sarah,” (Sarah being played by Salvita Decorte, “The Night Comes for Us”) is set in Indonesia. Its protagonists are Sarah and her sister Jill (Natasha Gott, “Zeta: When the Dead Awaken”), accompanied by Sarah’s young daughter as they head for their car in an underground parking garage. As the coherence of their world also devolves into chaos, Sarah instinctively tries to protect her daughter.
Portals, through its episodic structure, bends some of the conventions of anthology-styled films. The characters face a common, invisible enemy beyond their capability to elude. What is also different is that the characters appear focused on preserving the family unit than waxing philosophically about an apocalypse. This fixation is sensible and dramatic. Ultimately, most of us find security in the family.
The major artistic question regarding the film is whether these differences are enough for Portals to stand by itself as an impressive work of cinema. The acting is universally competent and the writing avoids cliché. Nevertheless, I don’t think it quite makes the powerful statement it could have made because we fail to see fleshed-out, individuated characters. It could be that this way of depicting characters is intentionally following a minimal aesthetic. However, owing to the episodic structure of Portals, we don’t spend much time with any character, and there are so many dangers that intrude during the course of the stories that you’re left with wondering about who these people are.