Now streaming on:
The grim science-fiction/horror drama "Await Further Instructions" has a great premise: British working class family the Milgrams gather for Christmas dinner after years of estrangement, but soon find themselves trapped inside their suburban home by a mysterious, unidentified entity who exclusively communicates with the Milgrams through their television. All the windows and doors are sealed shut from the outside. All cell phones and computers are down. The only source of information from the outside world is the family television, which prompts the now understandably terrified Milgrams to do exactly as it says.
Unfortunately, director Johnny Kevorkian and screenwriter Gavin Williams not only put their Beanstalk-high concept to ill use, but also fail to keep their drama compelling on a scene-to-scene basis. So what starts as mere fable ultimately becomes an unintelligible parable about how the road to Brexit was paved with xenophobia (accurate) and a media-engineered plot to brainwash the masses (Uh, come again?). Or, put another way: "Await Further Instructions" starts off like a classic episode of Rod Serling's searing, imaginative "The Twilight Zone," but ends like a feature-length installment of Forest Whitaker's unfocused, dismal "The Twilight Zone."
Comparisons between "Await Further Instructions" and "The Twilight Zone" are hard to avoid given that Williams's stage-y scenario is also an extended commentary/diagnostic on what ails modern society. There are other superficial similarities—especially the film's real-time-style pacing and central location—but the biggest is Williams and Kevorkian's unadorned, flat style of dramaturgy. Just listen to the way these characters interact with each other: they're one-dimensional foils, each one reflecting the other's defining ideology. This was rarely a major problem when Serling presided over "The Twilight Zone" since he, as series creator and head writer, often excelled at dialogue (not to mention monologues) that had psychological depth, political insight, and poetic rhythm.
But the individual members of the Milgram family are only important inasmuch as they speak to generalizations about their respective stock characters. It's a domino chain: the family's racist patriarch ("The Strain" star David Bradley) butts heads with go-along-to-get-along authoritarian son Tony (Grant Masters), which puts extra pressure on Tony to silence any and all dissent from his prodigal son Nick (Sam Gittins) and Nick's quasi-progressive girlfriend Annji (Neerja Naik).
Annji is not much of a character since all she does is stand up for herself whenever her skin color proves to be a controversial topic of discussion: she's not Caucasian, which makes Bradley's dad angry, which makes Annji and Nick unhappy and Tony extra-pissy. Unfortunately, Tony usually talks loudest, so we spend too much time watching Naik and Gittins tentatively stand up for themselves, but quickly sit right back down after Masters glowers and pouts at them. That power dynamic makes sense—and is sadly all too real—but it's not especially dynamic when there's no poetry in the characters' dialogue, nor any insight as to why they are the way they are. Political proselytizing is one thing, but monotonous bickering is another.
Thankfully, "Await Further Instructions" is compelling, until its lousy finale, as a cynical, rough-around-the-edges morality tale about how directionless a group of people can be if their survival depends on, uh, a television. The Milgrams carry out new dehumanizing orders almost as soon as they receive them, despite some resistance from (you guessed it) Annji and Nick. But while Tony and his hothead son-in-law Scott (Kris Saddler) have moments of indecision, those moments pass quickly (and are often immaterial to the film's plot). Genre film fans may be drawn in by the Milgrams' menacing boob tube antagonist. The Milgrams' TV is, admittedly, sorta spooky in a couple of scenes, especially the one where Nick's frail mother Beth (Abigail Cruttenden) begs her television to spare the life of her pregnant (and racist) daughter Kate (Holly Weston).
But "Await Further Instructions" completely falls apart during its concluding 20 minutes. At this point, it not only stops making sense on a dramatic level, but a symbolic one. The Milgrams' panic increases as their dilemma catastrophically intensifies, but nothing about the film makes that escalation seem believably urgent. The acting is uniformly flat, the lighting and cinematography are dull, and the dialogue is unremarkable.
Most importantly: this go-for-broke black comedy doesn't have anything intelligible to say about society's addiction to technology. An important subject doesn't necessarily make for a thrilling satire/social critique and Kevorkian and Williams simply aren't outlandish enough to land their half-baked ideas about television's dominating influence. "Await Further Instructions" never really works, but it's worth rooting for ... right until it collapses spectacularly.