Movies · Reviews

Haunted Sci-Fi Thriller ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’ is Eerie, but Ponderous

Disappearances, blackouts, and Philip K. Dick collide in a genre tale from the Philippines.
Darkness in Midnight In A Perfect World
Globe Studios
By  · Published on August 29th, 2021

This review of Midnight in a Perfect World is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.

In the not-so-distant future, Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is something of an almost-utopia. “Almost,” as in, if you can get past the occasional, unexplained blackouts that befall random parts of the city past midnight (as if “someone stole the moon,” two characters remark at different points during the film), after which citizens have been known to mysteriously disappear. In the Manila of Midnight in a Perfect World, while strict curfews and punishments have been put in place to try and curb these disappearances, no one really knows what to make of the situation — whether it’s government involvement, or aliens, or both, or whether it’s really even happening at all – and so conspiracy theories and rumors abound.

When four friends find themselves caught in one such blackout, they find their way to a supposed “safe house” to weather the blackout until morning. Of course, it quickly becomes clear that the safe house is no less dangerous than whatever lurks in the impenetrable darkness outside. Director Dodo Dayao’s sophomore film (succeeding 2014’s Violator) is a deeply surreal, disorienting, part haunted house thriller, part sci-fi drama, whose disaffecting establishment of the film’s world provokes an equally estranged, if nonetheless unique, viewing experience.

Friends Mimi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), Glenn (Anthony Falcon), Tonichi (Dino Pastrano), and Jinka (Glaiza de Castro) converge at a bar one night after acquiring purported “alien drugs” from sketchy drug dealer Kendrick (Charles Aaron Salazar). While outside the bar later that night, Tonichi and Glenn discuss their friend Deana’s strange disappearance from a month prior following one of the notorious blackouts, after which her social media presence was entirely erased as if she’d never existed at all. Tonichi harbors conspiracy theories about the blackouts and how the alleged “safe houses” that have sprung up form a mysterious pattern in their geography, while those like Jinka believe the disappearances are a hoax. As the four vacate the bar and traverse the city streets, things suddenly become eerily quiet before the world goes entirely black. Finding one such aforementioned safe house nearby, Tonichi leads his friends to the proposed sanctum only to become inexplicably separated from them on the way in.

In the windowless safe house, the now-trio meets a strange older woman named Alma (Bing Pimentel). Alma claims that this is the third safe house she’s been to, but assures the terrified group of young people that there’s sustenance and protection inside to hopefully allow them to withstand the situation until morning. Still, Jinka and Mimi’s fraught correspondences with a lost Tonichi and experiencing strange occurrences within the house embolden them to want to save him. Meanwhile, Glenn hears sounds of people and music somewhere within the walls of the safe house, and becomes preoccupied with a locked door that would potentially lead him to it.

The rules of the world of Midnight in a Perfect World are unclear to the point that the film becomes largely alienating; surreality and welcome ambiguity hindered by the way the film murkily establishes its central conceit (the screenplay is written by Dayao, with a co-story credit alongside Carljoe Javier). It’s hard to piece together why certain characters like Jinka denote the blackouts and disappearances as a hoax, when a friend of hers literally had her entire existence erased. This sort of phenomenon seems well-known and widespread enough to be a serious issue, yet the idea of people still treating it like a conspiracy theory feels a stretch. Or, maybe not? Simply put, there are lots of little world-building details like this that are left in the dark (no pun intended) and not in a particularly compelling way. More like, the film wants to be as vague as possible, but it simultaneously doesn’t let the audience in on enough to keep them hooked. For a setting purported to be an otherwise “perfect world,” characters seem to mostly live in fear and frustration.

But perhaps that’s just the irony of the situation — that a “perfect world” would look either no different, or even worse, than our own. And it’s true that these sort of nit-picky plot details are not necessarily vital to a film more interested in visuals and atmosphere and manifesting a full-body viewing experience meant to unravel you as much as its characters. But it takes something away from the film’s ability to establish a solid foundation in order to become fully absorbed by either later on. It’s as if the film wants to have its cake and eat it too, to be an experimental venture that veers away from narrative, while mostly neglecting the narrative it builds itself on in the first place.

Characters deliver dialogue suffused with simultaneously too much exposition and not enough, espousing on-the-nose quips about Philip K. Dick (of which the film very clearly owes a debt to) stating obvious ruminations (“beta-version of martial law”), while keeping things still far too uncertain to allow the audience to get a handle on the way this world operates before the narrative descends into full obscurity. It takes away from the film’s unsettling horror imagery and uncanny camera movements (by way of cinematographers Albert Banzon and Gym Lumbera) evocative of those found in something like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Ultimately, Midnight in a Perfect World does succeed at times in being as eerie and as haunting as the blackness that envelops its version of Manila, but if you can’t set up the rules of your horror world concretely, then what is there to really be afraid of?

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.