Is a twist a twist if it twists right in the first five minutes of a movie? According to Sony Pictures, yes — which is why marketing for 65 has emphasized the part where Adam Driver fights dinosaurs on a prehistoric planet Earth rather than answering the question of how he got there in the first place. But the truth left me absolutely giddy.
“After a cataclysmic crash on an unknown planet,” reads Sony’s carefully worded plot description for 65, “pilot Mills (Adam Driver) quickly discovers he’s actually stranded on Earth… 65 million years ago.”
But here is the thing: Mills does not discover that he’s actually stranded on Earth 65 million years ago!
[Ed. note: The following interview contains spoilers for 65.]
That’s because Mills has never been to Earth, or even heard of the planet. There is no time travel in 65; the pilot’s crash was simply a work accident during a routine shipping mission across the galaxy, coordinated by beings from another planet. Driver isn’t “human” — he’s an alien!
Finding an organic way back to the time of the dinosaurs was a naturally tricky endeavor, according to writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and even more so when they landed on the idea that Mills would arrive on Earth from an entirely different civilization.
“We needed it to feel grounded,” Beck says of the challenge. “There were wild ideas that were left on the page, like Adam speaking another language, or different facial modifications [to make him look more alien]. But we needed to find a blend where we didn’t lose the audience in the first five minutes. We were always pressure-testing.”
The duo spent a good portion of preproduction on 65 weighing world-building options with production designer Kevin Ishioka. The questions ranged from basic — Has this civilization embraced digital technology, or do they rely on analog? — to the fantastical. At one point, Beck and Woods considered a design of Mills’ galactic freighter that would have been made entirely out of rock, unlike anything the average moviegoer might immediately detect as a spaceship.
“We talked a lot about how the technology in the film should both be at times futuristic — meaning more advanced than our technology — and at other times regressed,” Woods says. “We wanted to run that line between futuristic and retro, a hybrid of ancient and future. That was the benchmark for us.”
The opening scenes of the film, set on an alien beach speckled with spiraling vertical rock formations, only give us traces of a larger world established in the far reaches of space. The focus is more on Mills’ soul-searching: The only reason he took his shipping job was to earn enough money for a medication that might or might not save his terminally ill daughter. When it all goes wrong (thanks to an ill-timed chunk of space rock that sends his ship spiraling down to Earth, a precursor of a much bigger meteor headed toward the planet), Mills’ fight for survival is immediately pressurized by a need to get home to his child, and to protect another survivor, a young girl named Koa (Ariana Greenblatt), who has also been stranded in the Cretaceous Era.
“We try to show more than explain,” Driver tells Polygon, “but you know what the relationship means to him in his unwillingness to talk, when he’s faced with someone who, in every detail, reminds him of his past.”
Mills isn’t a conventional hero. While Jurassic Park comes up as an obvious sci-fi touchstone for the film, Driver compares Mills to Harry Dean Stanton in Alien. He’s just a blue-collar guy punching a time clock. “It could almost be considered the equivalent to a truck driver. It’s not a planet where being a pilot is foreign to them. There isn’t some kind of hierarchical thing [because he’s an alien]. This is what he does.”
While 65 does get pulpy, Beck and Woods also cite Alien as a way of rooting the potentially far-fetched setup in something real. While they created a new planet and sculpted a world where aliens like Mills ship cryogenically frozen people as cargo, they ultimately take him to a familiar planet, where he faces creatures the audience knows a great deal about already. That meant respecting the known science about dinosaurs while also diving into science fiction.
“We had a Venn diagram, where one circle was all about science,” Woods says, “And then in the other Venn diagram circle, we had Ridley Scott’s Alien, one of the scariest movies ever made. And so we just wanted to kind of combine interesting science and also something that’s frightening.”