Sci-Fi Drama 'Silencio,' Set in Mexico's Zone of Silence, Is As Inert As Its Time-Travelling Rock

Silencio, the new movie from Mexican writer-director Lorena Villarreal, opens on a sci-fi desert mystery with all the hazard-suited chaos of early Spielberg movies like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But its failure to build on its promising beginning squanders what could have been a twisty, time travel drama.

Silencio opens in Mexico's La Zona del Silencio, a desert region that's taken on a similar mythology to the Bermuda Triangle. Though untrue, it's long been rumored that magnetic anomalies in the area prevent radio transmissions, mess with compasses and even mutate local wildlife. The Zone of Silence has even become a focal point for UFO researchers. But most of the legend boils down to an off-course U.S. missile test that crashed into the zone in July of 1970, spilling containers of radioactive cobalt.

Fittingly, Silencio opens with this missile crash and subsequent cleanup conducted by Dr. James (John Noble) and his assistant Peter (Nic Jackman). When the two touch a stone which has intermixed the crashed cobalt and local meteorite material, they find themselves zapped back a week back in time, to the exact moment at the forefront of James' mind: the car crash death of his grandchildren. This time, he's able to save his granddaughters life.

Decades later, James is nearly catatonic, under the care of his surviving granddaughter Ana (Melina Matthews). Meanwhile, an adult Peter (now played by Rupert Graves), is busy on the TED Talk circuit, promoting his years of research into the workings of La Zona. There's also a medium who sees dead people n the mix for reasons I never quite figured out.

But while Peter's continued media appearances suggest a science-y thriller, as he unravels the exact working principles of time travel in the Zone of Silence, Silencio has other ideas. Someone wants the stone to travel back in time and save a loved one of their own, so they dispatch a young man to kidnap Ana's son in exchange for the stone. (Despite an obnoxious red herring, which uses an edit to suggest another suspect, you'll guess exactly who's behind the kidnapping immediately, mainly because there's only one person to choose from.) Ana spends the rest of the movie trying to dig up the stone from where James hid it and—in a tonal shift no one could have expected—torturing anyone who stands between her and her son.

Unfortunately, the limp kidnapping plot utterly abandons the work Silencio did in creating a plausible-enough sci-fi background, essentially making a waste of the movie's first third as we get mired in low-stakes distractions and sentimental family flashbacks.

This turn is established with deflating casualness when Peter takes a break from being the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of Mexican mysteries, plops down in an easy chair, and lays out the simple, magical rules for the stone: how far it can travel, how to wish really hard on it, even inserting a The Box-like price on its use, swapping one life for another's death. What was the point of all that science stuff if you're just going to come out and make it a Harry Potter widget?

No longer sci-fi, Silencio ambles toward its credits under a persistent paste of quavering strings: one of the more cloying soundtracks in recent memory. With the stone, the zone and its powers kicked into the background, Silencio becomes a muddle of melodrama and thriller pretensions, alternating low-stakes phone calls, drive-arounds and gun-waving with painfully sappy backstory. (Silencio failed to learn from E.T. and Close Encounters that endearing families are built on conflict, not hugs.) The stone will be used to change the past again before Silencio is over, but as resolution rather than complication, reducing what should have been a wellspring of drama to a rock in a box that's nearly as inert as the rest of Silencio.