Reviews | Written by Paul Mount 10/05/2021

PORTAL

Portal reaches for the stars – or at least the upper reaches of the sci-fi stratosphere – by ploughing a furrow not dissimilar to recent ‘hard’ genre titles like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Alex Garland’s startling Annihilation. But, as with so many of these straight-to-physical media/streaming titles, its ambition is frustrated by its budget (and, in the case of Portal, a too-brief running time) that allows it to do little more than present an intriguing and potentially thought-provoking scenario and then find itself unable to explore it satisfactorily.

Portal is an anthology movie – three short tales connected by the film’s overarching theme – connected by a radio presenter commentary that attempts to fill in the gaps inevitably caused by a film with big ideas way above its capacity to fully explore them on screen. The central conceit is that one million ‘doors’ (the original US title of the film) have appeared randomly all over the world. These shimmery, amorphous, and ugly-looking doorways are actually ‘portals’; no-one has any idea where they have come from or why they’re here but they become responsible for the disappearance of half the world’s population, which has vanished into them and not come back. The three stories here explore the idea of these ‘portals’ with varying degrees of interest. In ‘Lockdown’, the first and perhaps most traditional of the three, a group of high schoolkids in detention at the moment the portals actually arrive (off screen but to a soundtrack of screaming sirens and passing helicopters and jets) are trapped in their school as one of the portals appears in the corridor outside their classroom and exerts a strange and baleful influence over them. The second story, ‘Knockers’ (stop that!) chronicles the events that befall a group of safety-suited volunteers (called ‘knockers’ because they… well, knock on the doors?) who travel into a portal for a regulated 12 minutes to gather data. But what happens inside the portal makes little sense; it’s just a weird fever dream, their grip on reality challenged and their inner psychoses rising to the surface. It’s a pretty, effects-heavy psychedelic trip (man), nicely directed by Saman Kesh, but it doesn’t really come to anything  beyond giving us a vague idea of what may lurk in the strange places beyond the portals. ‘Lamaj’, the third story, is probably the most satisfying of the bunch, touching on Arrival’s themes of communication and first contact but fudging its point by introducing a gun-toting cop into its quiet, thoughtful mix.

Despite its faults and its wilful sense of vagueness, Portal is to be commended for at least trying to be a little more cerebral than many of its genre bedfellows and it occasionally delivers some richly-imaginative and startling imagery. However, there’s a frustrating ambiguity in its storytelling with none of the short tales really amounting to much. There’s a better film lurking here somewhere but it needs more than Portal’s meagre eighty-minute runtime – and a more focused script – to really make it anything other than a colourful, sometimes bizarre, curiosity.

Portal is available now on DVD and digital.