One of the challenges of launching a new science fiction or fantasy universe is explaining all the damn rules that apply to it. endless, a solid but largely tacky explosion of comic-book origin story boilerplate, wastes no time moving on to those obligatory things. The film explains its premise over an opening tour of Mexico City, in an oddly formal and probably studio-mandatory voiceover. It does not matter that all this information, plucked from the pages of the novel by D. Eric Maikranz The Reincarnation Papers, will be repeated via dialogue later in the film. endless doesn’t risk losing anyone – perhaps logical for a potential blockbuster with more exposition than story.
The story comes courtesy of Heinrich Treadway (Dylan O’Brien), who races through the car chase prologue on a mission. The next time we see him, he’s someone else entirely: a Boston loner played by Mark Wahlberg. Heinrich, you see, is now Evan McCauley, who is shocked to discover that the visions going through his head are not symptoms of schizophrenia, as his doctors have long believed, but memories from past lives. Evan is an Infinite, one of a race of eternally reincarnated humans who dress like mannequins, congregate in high-tech temple headquarters, and take sides in an endless civil war between different factions of their kind. The good, called The Believers, use their centuries of knowledge and experience to help humanity. The bad guys, helpfully referred to as The Nihilists, want to wipe out the entire species, mostly to end their own constantly rebooting existence.
Wahlberg, who could not convince as a high school physics teacher, seems an unusual choice to play a man with the wisdom of countless lives. But he’s a good match for an immortal guy “locked out of its very long memory bank; the film usually asks Evan to look vaguely confused at his circumstances — a Wahlberg specialty. Scholars in the fieldd from Marky Mark surveys might notice how neat endless fits into the career of a movie star who becomes increasingly obsessed with inserting oneself into the most serious dilemmas of recent history. What is immorality but a chance to play the hero through the ages? In reality, Wahlberg brings what he usually does with future franchise rates: wooden tough stances and the gym time required — the same skills he honed for director Antoine Fuqua during their last available collaboration, shooter.
The setup is not far from last year’s superhero sleeper The old guard, except the heroes here have to switch bodies and re-teeth each time they go down. That film wasn’t a masterpiece, but it seemed to be concerned with the logistical and psychological implications of his centuries-old concept. For all his data dumps, endless answers fewer questions than it raises. Is everyone reincarnated, and only the Infinite can remember their past lives? Do they remember? everything, or just the most relevant bits of backstory? The film’s villain, played by a bald and beautifully bearded Chiwetel Ejiofor, has a Marvel heavy master plan. (Literally – he’s looking for an egg-shaped MacGuffin called, uh, The Egg, which he’ll use to… blow everyone into an ash cloud.) But the big bad guy is also the only person on screen who actually seems to struggling with the burden of eternal life (he has the added existential curse of regaining full knowledge and sense once he blew into a new womb), and Ejiofor gives his thirst for the void at least a small spark of melancholy. Perhaps the actor is channeling his own desire to be somewhere else.
If it ain’t no more explain and explain and explain again, endless sends in rudimentary action sequences, skillfully and legibly staged by Fuqua, against a sonic backdrop of generally thick rock guitar. A little Mission Impossible here, a little Fast & Furious there, a sword fight on a tumbling plane, a chase through a police station (that sounds cooler than it sounds). This time at least there’s a decent explanation for the reckless/fearless way people always behave in action movies. Why not Jumping out of that plane or taking that sharp turn or racing in a hail of bullets when the worst consequence awaiting you is another puberty?
What endless fatally lacking is personality. It’s a sci-fi table the whole time racing through introductions and plot points at a mercenary pace, manned at the wheel by a star whose default mode for these kinds of movies is hunky frowning. Just when you’re beginning to wonder if eternal life is robbing you of a sense of humor, trusty comedy wringer Jason Mantzoukas waltzes in to hijack the film for a few scenes with his usual I-can’t-believe-I-landed. -this-gig brutality (plus some blatant ADR zingers). It looks like he walked in from a completely different movie – a playful and less corporate one, probably a better one. Yet his presence has a certain thematic significance: here’s another actor, like Mark Wahlberg, who can’t help but be himself on screen, like a soul moving from one character to another, with each new performance a kind of reincarnation.