Review: ‘The Absence of Eden,’ starring Zoe Saldaña, Garrett Hedlund, Adria Arjona and Chris Coy

May 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zoe Saldaña and Sophia Hammons in “The Absence of Eden” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“The Absence of Eden”

Directed by Marco Perego

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Mexico and briefly in Mexico, the dramatic film “The Absence of Eden” features a Latin and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A Hispanic undocumented immigrant and a white American border patrol agent, who are strangers to each other, have various ethical dilemmas before their worlds collide. 

Culture Audience: “The Absence of Eden” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramas about the intersections of law enforcement and undocumented immigration in America, but the movie’s story is too muddled and unfocused to have much impact.

Garrett Hedlund and Adria Arjona in “The Absence of Eden” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“The Absence of Eden” has an absence of a cohesive plot. This clumsy drama portrays multiple sides of undocumented immigration and law enforcement in the U.S., but the story falls apart in the last dreadful 30 minutes. Some of the movie’s cast members give capable performances, but they are not enough to save this flimsy movie.

Visual artist Marco Perego makes his feature-film directorial debut with “The Absence of Eden,” which was written by Perego and Rick Rapoza. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Taormina Film Fest in Italy. “Absence of Eden” does not have a large number of people with speaking roles in its cast, but the movie tries to do too much in a jumbled way, and then tries to rush things along to an ending that is ultimately underwhelming and seems incomplete.

“The Absence of Eden” follow the stories of two main characters over a period of approximately a few months. The first main character is Esmerelda “Esmee” Rojas (played by Zoe Saldaña), an exotic dancer from Mexico. (Saldaña and Perego are married in real life.) The other main character is Shipp (played by Garrett Hedlund), an American border patrol agent for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Esmee is first seen in Mexico at her exotic dancer job at a seedy bar. Esmee is giving a lap dance to a cowboy customer (played by Leonel Garza) in a back room. The customer gets aggressive and tries to force Esmee at gunpoint into doing a sexual act with him. She resists, and in the scuffle that ensues, Esmee grabs the gun and shoots him dead.

In a panic, Esmee decides she’s going to escape by illegally crossing the U.S./Mexico border into New Mexico. (“The Absence of Eden” was filmed on location in New Mexico.) Esmee grabs some cash and calls a secretive group that transports people illegally though U.S. borders. She makes arrangements to get this transportation to the United States. Esmee says goodbye to her grandmother (played by Petra Tovar Sanchez), who gives her personal journal to Esmee as a keepsake.

Esmee and a group of about six to nine undocumented immigrants make the journey by van to New Mexico. Emsee finds out that she has gone from one terrible situation to another. The transportation service is really a human trafficking operation that sells undocumented immigrants into illegal labor to unscrupulous employers. Some of the women and children will be sold into sex trafficking. Esmee has to fight off the sexual advances of the smuggler who’s leading this trip.

Emsee is in the van when she witnesses an unnamed young mother (played by Laura Cruz) get forcibly separated from her daughter Alma (played by Sophia Hammons), who is about 10 or 11 years old. The mother and Alma are understandably distraught and devastated when the mother is taken away to an undisclosed location. Esmee has compassion for Alma and starts taking care of this child while promising she will do everything she can to reunite Alma with Alma’s mother.

Esmee finds out that she is being forced to be a drug mule (someone who smuggles drugs for drug dealers) while she and a few other undocumented immigrant women have been sold into working as maids in a dumpy motel, where they are treated like prisoners under the watchful eyes of security guards at all times. The motel’s undocumented maids also get frequently locked up in rooms when they sleep, so they can’t escape. The motel manager Phil (played by Kevin Owen McDonald) is an elderly creep who seems to be attracted to Esmee.

Meanwhile, Shipp is stoic in his job and in his personal life. He has some “daddy issues” because his retired father was a well-respected ICE agent, and Shipp feels somewhat overshadowed by his father’s admired reputation. Shipp’s father, who does not have a name in the movie, is not seen on screen, but his voice can be heard leaving messages for Shipp, who doesn’t return the messages. (Ted Koch is the voice of Shipp’s father.)

Shipp is a bachelor who lives alone. His love life starts to heat up when he meets Yadira (played by Adria Arjona) at a bar. They hook up immediately in the back seat of his car. Yadira tells Shipp during their first encounter that she works as an elementary schoolteacher and she’s a single mother to a son named Gabriel (played by Chrysovalentis Martinez), who is 11 years old. Yadira lives with Gabriel and her grandmother Maria (played by Teresa Cepada Rodriguez) in a modest home.

Shipp works with a racist ICE border patrol agent named Dobbins (played by Chris Coy), who takes pleasure in being violently brutal to many of the undocumented Hispanic immigrants whom he detains. Shipp witnesses this brutality when he’s working with Dobbins. Shipp only stops the brutality if it looks like the victim might need to be taken to a hospital if Dobbins continues the assault.

Shipp keeps his personal life separate from his work life. However, one day at work, Dobbins convinces Shipp to bring Yadira on a double date for dinner at a restaurant with Dobbins and a woman named Rebecca (played by Sarah Minnich), whom Dobbins has recently begun dating. Dobbins doesn’t find out that Yadira is Hispanic until this double date.

“The Absence of Eden” wanders for long stretches that don’t do much to further the story. What about Alma and her missing mother? That storyline is mostly forgotten. Much of “The Absence of Eden” shows various incidents that happen in the lives of Shipp and Esmee. Shipp is usually emotionally closed-off, but he begins up to open up to Yadira. The couple’s relationship becomes more serious when they declare their love for each other. However, in a movie like “The Absence of Eden,” a love affair like this will not go smoothly.

Saldaña and Hedlund have moments of portraying Emee and Shipp convincingly. The problem is that “The Absence of Eden” screenplay depicts these two main characters as mostly stereotypes. By the end of the movie, viewers will learn almost nothing about Esmee except that she’s an outlaw for killing a man in self-defense, and she decided to take care of Alma, who is not seen for most of the movie. Yadira is an interesting but underdeveloped character that limits Arjona’s nuanced performance. The rest of the movie’s cast members are serviceable and not outstanding in their roles.

The storylines of Esmee and Shipp converge in a very predictable and awkward way. Esmee has a preachy monologue near the end of the movie that is absolutely cringeworthy because it sounds “only in a movie” phony. The direction of “The Absence of Eden” tries to be gritty and artsy at the same time, but it just doesn’t work for this unfocused story. “The Absence of Eden” seems to want to make a big statement about the exploitation and brutality that undocumented immigrants can experience in America. However, that statement rings hollow when “The Absence of Eden” refuses to show or tell anything meaningful about the movie’s main undocumented immigrant and who she really is as a person.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “The Absence of Eden” in select U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Morbius,’ starring Jared Leto

March 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto in “Morbius” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Morbius”

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the New York City metropolitan area (and briefly in Costa Rica, Greece and Sweden), the horror/action film “Morbius” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A brilliant but illness-plagued biochemist named Dr. Michael Morbius finds the cure to diseases and death, but it comes at a price of becoming a superpowered vampire who craves human blood. 

Culture Audience: “Morbius” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies adapted from Marvel comic books, but the movie’s weak screenplay ultimately lowers the quality of this already-mediocre film.

Jared Leto and Adria Arjona in “Morbius” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures)

“Morbius” works better as a horror movie than as a vampire superhero origin story that’s supposed to have a place in the “Spider-Man” franchise. “Morbius” has too many plot holes and not enough personality for it to ever be considered a classic superhero film. In fact, “Morbius” recycles so many familiar vampire clichés and action battle scenes, viewers will feel like they’ve already seen the movie before it even ends.

And so, what’s a stereotypical movie to do when it doesn’t have a lot of new ideas to offer? It usually has to rely on the charisma of the cast members to engage viewers in a way that will make audiences feel personally invested in what happens to the characters. But that charisma is mostly lacking in “Morbius,” which has a very talented cast that is limited by uninspired dialogue that renders their characters as nothing more than generic and hollow. “Morbius” was directed by Daniel Espinosa and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless.

That’s not to say that “Morbius” is a complete waste of time. The movie’s visual effects, although not spectacular, still get the job done well enough that they look convincing in most parts of the film. And the acting isn’t terrible. The performances in “Morbius” just are not up to the memorable standards they could be for audiences who have become used to superhero movies where the main characters have strong and distinctive personalities.

Even as an origin story, “Morbius” falls flat. Dr. Michael Morbius (played by Jared Leto), a brilliant biochemist, is first seen in Costa Rica with a team of people, as he entices a cave full of bats out of the cave, by taking a knife and using it to slice the palm of his hand with a superficial wound that draws blood. Considering that bats wouldn’t just swarm out of a cave because they saw or smelled a human being’s bleeding hand, this scene is supposed to show these are no ordinary bats. They’re vampire bats.

“Morbius” then abruptly cuts to a flashback that takes place 25 years earlier in Greece. Michael (played by Charlie Shotwell), at the age of about 12 or 13, is in a children’s ward of a hospital when he gets a shy new roommate who’s about the same age. The newcomer’s name is Lucien Crown (played by Joseph Esson), although Michael insists on calling him Milo. This new roommate quickly goes along with being called by this new name, with the implication being that he’s got self-esteem issues and is desperate for a new identity. Milo uses crutches to walk and needs a machine to help him breathe.

The two boys have health problems that mostly confine them to their rooms, so they know what it’s like to feel like outcasts. From their hospital window, Michael and Milo can see bratty schoolboys, who are about the same age, taunting them for having health issues. Milo asks Michael after one of these tauntings: “What would you do if you could be normal for just one hour?” Michael curtly answers, “I don’t think about it.”

Milo and Michael become fast friends, with Michael being the more assertive and confident of the two. Michael tells Milo that they’re both in this hospital because they have the same blood disease and because “there’s something missing from our DNA,” so they are undergoing experiments. A scientist named Dr. Emil Nicholas (played by Jared Harris) is the leader of these experiments.

Dr. Nicholas is kind and paternal to Michael and Milo. Where are these boys’ parents or other family members? The movie never answers that question. However, people familiar with Morbius from Marvel Comics already know that Milo comes from a wealthy family, while Morbius was raised by a single mother. The Morbius in this movie never talks about his family or anything else about his background.

One day, Michael saves Milo’s life. When Milo’s breathing machine malfunctions, and Milo loses consciousness, Michael is able to quickly solve the problem. He fixes the machine by removing a tiny spring of coiled wire. Dr. Nicholas is so impressed with Michael’s problem-solving skills, he tells Michael that Michael will be sent to a school for gifted children.

Before Michael leaves, he writes a letter to Milo in which he promises that they will see each other again. Soon after Michael leaves, Milo is outside and being harassed by some of the bullies who have found Milo carrying this letter. The harassment turns into an assault that’s halted when Dr. Nicholas comes to Milo’s rescue.

The movie then flash-forwards to the present day. An adult Dr. Morbius is on stage in Sweden and about to receive the Nobel Prize. At this point in his life, he uses arm braces to walk. While a Nobel Prize official makes an introductory speech, it’s mentioned that Morbius was a prodigy who completed his doctorate at the age of 19. Viewers never get to see what happens next, but it’s described in the next scene.

“Morbius” then makes an abrupt time shift once again. He’s now back in New York City, where he lives. Morbius works at a hospital and has built a scientific lab on a cargo ship, where he can do his top-secret experiments. While attending to a patient—a girl named Anna (played by Zaris-Angel Hator), who’s about 9 or 10 years old—she says to him, “I can’t believe you dissed the king and queen of Sweden.” Morbius then makes an anti-monarchist comment in response.

What happened on the way to Morbius getting a Nobel Prize? A newspaper headline reveals that he refused the prize, after going to all the trouble of being at the ceremony. This was a missed opportunity for the filmmakers to show Morbius having an irreverent, maybe mischievous side that made Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man so fun to watch for many fans of superhero movies. Unfortunately, what happened on that Nobel Prize stage stayed on that Nobel Prize stage, only to leave it up to viewers’ imagination what kind of uproar Morbius caused at that event.

Morbius’ closest colleague is Dr. Martine Bancroft (played by Adria Arjona), who is more cautious than Morbius is, when it comes to his radical experiments. She warns him that she knows he’s doing experiments that mix good DNA and bad DNA, and he could lose his medical license if authorities found out. Morbius is undeterred by Martine’s concerns. Martine later becomes Morbius’ obvious potential love interest, even though Leto and Arjona have little to no romantic chemistry together.

Meanwhile, Morbius’ former childhood friend Milo (played by Matt Smith) and Dr. Nicholas are both in New York City too. Milo (who is now a flashy extrovert, in contrast to how introverted he was as a child) is eager to get the same serum that Morbius has been working on to cure them both of their blood diseases. Morbius tells Milo that he can’t have any of the serum until Morbius tests it on himself first. You know where this is going, of course.

Because “Morbius” is a comic-book movie, viewers have to suspend disbelief that within this hospital, Morbius works in a lab with a large cylindrical cage full of bats. It’s implied that these are the same bats that Morbius got in Costa Rica. Morbius wants to see if he can solve his health problems by infusing his DNA with bat DNA in a serum, so that Morbius can not only eliminate his illnesses, he can also possibly live forever. Try to read that without laughing.

A trial test on a mouse proves to be successful. And the next thing you know, Morbius and Martine are on the cargo ship off of the coast of Long Island, so she can inject him with the serum. Why have the lab on a cargo ship, which is out in the open and would put it on the radar of the U.S. Coast Guard or other entities that monitor sea vessels? Don’t expect an answer for that either.

It’s all just a way for Morbius to end up killing people when the serum experiment goes very wrong, and he finds out that he has become a homicidal vampire who craves human blood. A massacre ensues that leaves eight people dead on the ship, with Morbius and Martine as the only survivors. Martine’s injuries (she was knocked down by one of the ship’s crew members) leave her recovering in a hospital. It won’t be the last time she gets seriously injured in this movie.

Meanwhile, the formerly sickly-looking Morbius finds out he’s now healthy with an athletic physique and superpowers, but he’s also a vampire who now craves human blood. Morbius is horrified and deeply ashamed of what he’s become, and he wants to make things right by trying to reverse the serum. However, he’s the main suspect in the cargo ship massacre, so he goes into hiding. And where does this fugitive go when authorities are looking for him? Right back to his workplace, where no one seems to notice that he no longer has to use braces to walk.

Two agents from the FBI are hot on Morbius’ trail: Simon Stroud (played by Tyrese Gibson) and Alberto Ramirez (played by Al Madrigal), whose names are not Mutt and Jeff, even though they act like Mutt and Jeff stereotypes. Agent Stroud is the stoic, no-nonsense type. Agent Ramirez is the goofy, nervous type. Agents Stroud and Ramirez are assigned to the FBI’s Department of Enhanced Individuals.

That’s why these FBI agents don’t really seem shocked when Morbius is brought in for questioning, and he starts to partially transform into a vampire right in front of them. Agent Ramirez brings holy water to protect himself in this interrogation, while Agent Stroud somewhat scoffs at Agent Ramirez’s fear of vampires. It’s enough to say that Morbius’ stint in a detention center is short-lived, and he goes on the run again.

The rest of “Morbius” is essentially a “vampire on the loose” story, with the FBI trying to capture Morbius, who gets blamed for some more vampire murders that he did not commit. The movie falters in how certain fights involving Morbius (such as a major brawl that happens in a subway station) are treated as everyday occurrences and certainly not investigated adequately by law enforcement that has launched a massive manhunt (or is it vampire hunt?) for Morbius. But viewers can’t really take this “massive manhunt” seriously when Agents Stroud and Ramirez are the only FBI officials who seem to be available to show up and investigate the vampire crime scenes.

The action sequences in “Morbius” liven up an otherwise dull storyline that lacks originality. Smith seems to be having some campy fun in his role as the adult Milo. Leto has done much better work elsewhere, although “Morbius” certainly isn’t his worst movie. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their average roles.

Two mid-credits scenes tease Morbius’ involvement with a character who was in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Who this character is not a secret, but it won’t be mentioned in this review anyway, so as not to spoil the surprise for viewers who don’t know. Spider-Man and Venom both get briefly mentioned in “Morbius.” It’s enough to say, based on what the underwhelming “Morbius” has to offer, any future “Morbius” movies—just like many other superhero movies—might have to rely on Spider-Man to bring more excitement to the story.

Columbia Pictures will release “Morbius” in U.S. cinemas on April 1, 2022.

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