In just ten years, Marvel Studios has created a vast net of influence over the way sci-fi/action films look and how these stories are told. For better or worse, they have created the template for movies about super-humans. And if Stray, a dour fantasy thriller from director Joe Sill, feels familiar, it’s because it feels like a middling Marvel Studios film. But whereas many Marvel films are anchored by memorable first acts and spectacle-heavy finales, Stray unfortunately rides the line in between, never amounting to much of anything.
Karen Fukuhara (Katana from 2016’s Suicide Squad) is Nori, a Japanese immigrant living with her mother and grandmother. Nori is bestowed with a mysterious power, though its particulars are a bit hazy; early sequences indicate her abilities have something to do with controlling vine-y tendrils emanating from nothing (she also, evidently, has the power to force filmmakers to shoot these sequences in hokey, saccharine, soft lighting). Within minutes, Nori’s mother (Saki Miata) is found dead from what the coroner calls “petrification.” Her body has aged 1,000 years in mere minutes and she now looks like Han Solo encased in burnt Totinos’ pizza rolls. In order to catch her mother’s killer—a similarly powered mystery-man whose main ability is swirling clouds of CGI smoke—Nori must team up with a world-weary detective (who spends her free time getting black arm-band tattoos from a dude named Mick in an empty warehouse, so you know she’s seen some shit) and look to her past for answers.
Stray is a machine made of component parts but none work well together. The mystery elements are undercooked and uninteresting and the internal logic of the film’s fantasy angle doesn’t receive enough attention to be compelling. But, more problematic, Stray’s components are ones we’ve seen before. Nori is the reluctant hero, the shy invisible girl who is thrust in a position that reveals her true potential. Detective Murphy (Christine Woods, who has a bit part in Netflix’s recent cancer dramedy Paddleton) is a pragmatic detective who doesn’t quite play by the book and her boss (also her estranged romantic partner) is the hard-ass skeptic who knows there must be some other explanation for these supernatural occurrences. Unlike Marvel’s villain problem, Stray has an everyone problem, eschewing subtle character motivation in favor of large swaths of recognizable tropes and pastiche.
For a film about silly superpowers and paranormal whodunits, Stray is decidedly dour, treating CGI fights between opposing energy balls of light and smoke with the utmost sincerity, lacking a modicum of mirth. The film is dark and dank, shot in a depressing color palette of dark blues punctuated by the superhero lens flare that signifies some powerful shit is coming down the pipeline. Every character is self-serious, written with William Faulkner-level personal tragedies as a shortcut to audience sympathy. But perhaps the film’s gravest error (and its strongest analog to Marvel’s films) is its problem identifying what’s at stake for the characters and the world at large. Stray is a film that is large in scope and granular in execution; it’s a personal story with global ramifications, which, when done well, should make a film feel universal. But the film can’t find the balance between either—unable to develop its characters or establish a believable world—leaving the audience to rightfully assume that none of this really matters.
Stray does have an interesting perspective on an immigrant’s experience of feeling alienated and isolated in a bustling world. It asks potent questions about family and how someone can love another despite knowing they’ve done awful things. But Stray’s screenplay isn’t disciplined enough to expound on these themes. Crippled by a second-act reveal that isn’t set up properly and leaves the audience feeling deflated, the screenplay is eager to serve up “Ah-ha!” moments but not willing to put in the work necessary to make them satisfying. Stray feels like Marvel lite (it took tremendous willpower—and probably some editorial oversight—to not title this review “The Marvel-Less Mrs. Stray-sel”). It boasts flimsy stakes and underdeveloped characters, mired by large chunks of unremarkable exposition and cradled on a central mystery that isn’t all that compelling.