Syfy Wire recently had an article about rewatching the much-maligned After Earth. The author, Chris Worthington, discusses how when Will Smith’s character tells his son (played by his real-life son, Jaden) to take a knee, it is more relevant nowadays than when the movie initially came out. That is because occasionally timing is everything. A book or movie coming out at just the right moment can seize upon the social and political climate in a way that gives it an urgency that would be lost at any other time. Conversely, a piece of work might land too early and just not fit the mood of the times; a release being too late means feeling dated right out of the gate.
I have no way of knowing when writer-director Wayne Slaten wrote the first draft for his sci-fi thriller Dropa, but it couldn’t come out at a better time. In 1986, the Communist Party of the American Federation saw humanoid creatures named Dropa enter society. They were used as slave labor until 2009 when an airborne disease, originating from the alien lifeforms, caused countless deaths. Thus, The Party, set up the Legion to dispose of the Dropa. Five years on, the Legion is disbanded, and the Dropa are exterminated.
Or are they? A murder in the alleyway near a dive bar suggests that a Dropa may still be on Earth. Now it is up to former Legion member Harrison (David Matranga) to track down the killer, Mikhail (Jason Douglas), and understand why this is happening. His investigation leads him to the truth of who the Dropa are, who he is, and what the Communist Party of the American Federation is after.
“…the Communist Party of the American Federation saw humanoid creatures named Dropa enter society.”
Dropa is awash in Soviet imagery, as Communism is in charge. As Harrison and those helping him uncover scandals and corruption, it is impossible not to recall real-life headlines about the 26 Russians that have been indicted in the Mueller probe. This parallel gives the thriller a sense of relevancy and poignancy that never leaves.
As the plot unfolds and it is revealed that a portion of society saw the Dropa as something to be feared, even more, current administration policies and political speeches spring to mind. The cocoons that hatched the aliens were found in the Gulf of Mexico, and after being held in detention centers, the Dropa were only released as slave labor. How any governmental body can vilify an entire race (or humanoid species in this case) is the subject of debate. This hits close to home for Harrison as his significant other, Kate (Emily Neves), was a Dropa; one who so closely matched humans that few, if anyone knew before she succumbed to the airborne disease.
Slaten’s vision owes a debt to Blade Runner, most readily apparent in an interrogation scene early on in the movie. Harrison goes to talk to Helena (Michelle Ellen Jones), the bartender the night of the murder. The way the scene is blocked and shot, has echoes of the famous Deckard talking to Zhora sequence. There are other influences, but that is not to imply Dropa has no personality unto itself.
All the twist and curves the plot takes makes for a compelling and enthralling mystery. Slaten’s natural ear for dialogue gets to the heart of the matters at hand without sounding too exposition heavy. There is also the matter of Mike Newport’s music, which adds to the atmosphere perfectly. Most importantly is Larry McKee’s cinematography plays with light and shadow in a very visually engaging way, especially in a crazy nightmare sequence.
“All the twist and curves the plot takes makes for a compelling and enthralling mystery…”
Sadly, the acting is where Dropa falters. Matranga does a good job, bringing a world-weariness that suggests all the guilt Harrison feels over the Legion. James Hong has a small role, and he is always a welcome presence. As the thuggish Mikhail, Douglas is appropriately creepy and sinister.
The rest of the cast is not as good. Uju is Carter, another ex-Legion enforcer, just trying to survive another day in this crazy world. Her performance is downright terrible. A rather intense conversation with Harrison about another murder does not come across as dramatic as it should, as Uju delivers each line with all the emotion of an exasperated barista. The other supporting cast members don’t do much better, which hurts the movie overall.
Dropa is set in a fascinating alternate history, has well-written dialogue, and a timely urgency with its real-life parallelism. While the leads, and James Hong, do well, the supporting cast is never believable, robbing certain scenes of their dramatic intentions. If you are a fan of sci-fi mysteries, this is worth a watch, but it does fall just shy of greatness.
Dropa (2019) Written and directed by Wayne Slaten. Starring David Matranga, Jason Douglas, James Hong, Uju, Michelle Ellen Jones, Emily Neves, Shayla Bagir.
7 out of 10 Gummi Bears