STARDATE 12.07.2021.D: BROTHERLY LOVE AT THE CORE OF 2021'S 'PORTAL RUNNER'

by EZ for SciFiHistory.net

December 29, 2021

I was there all the way back in 1985 when Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future first premiered on silver screens that summer.

If memory serves me correctly (always a risk at my ripe old age), I caught the film in a weekend showing along with a few friends of mine I had made as a counselor at a YMCA summer camp for underprivileged youth. As you can imagine, the delightful blend of comedy, action, and Science Fiction was exactly the distraction we needed as fuel for our escape from dealing with the unruly youth of our day jobs. And the flick’s central lesson – namely to do what you must to preserve the family – resonated in a such a way that we could use it to inspire those young’uns when we were back on the proverbial clock. We worked with, after all, kids from largely broken families; so any tool that could help us ‘get through’ to them was a huge, huge plus. Believe it or not, talking with them about Back To The Future, Marty McFly, and Doc Brown was one such tool.

Sadly, today’s diet of entertainment doesn’t offer much by way of traditional family fare. Granted, we as a society have grown a bit more disenchanted – kids, too – but cultivating healthy relationships should be the gameplan for every household, no matter how many children or parents live under its roof. When Kardashians become not only the norm but the cultural benchmark for young skulls of mush looking for role models, the adults-in-the-room need something to help in the pushback … and every now and then I’m thrilled to find a movie to suggest.

Portal Runner (2021) springs from the mind of J.D. Henning and Tallis Moore. Directed by Cornelia Duryee, the film is an adventure postulating the existence of a multiverse of worlds that, once opened, might lead to a very dark fate for one young adventurer trapped in a never-ending flight from a cosmic force threatening to destroy not only his life but possibly that of the family he may’ve never known …

(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)

From the film’s promotional materials:
“When 15-year-old Nolan discovers a secretive family legacy and a portal that enables him to travel to parallel worlds, it’s a young boy’s dream come true … until it becomes a nightmare when he realizes he’s being pursued across the ages by an evil force. When he becomes stranded on Christmas in an alternate world with his quirky family and a rebellious and petulant older sister he’s never met before, he realizes Mae may be the key to defeating his adversary and must enlist her help fast … before it’s too late for them all.”

Think what you will, but I’ve always argued that the best Science Fiction and Fantasy tales have long been the province of the young and the young-at-heart.

For example, the fabled Luke Skywalker began his time in screen history as little more than a farmboy from Tatooine. The aforementioned Marty McFly spent his teenage years pining away for a chance to play rock’n’roll in front of his fellow high school classmates. Young Alex Rogan honed his skills as ‘The Last Starfighter’ on little more than an upright video game console before being tasked with saving the universe from Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. Why, even streaming giant Netflix tapped such fertile ground when it enlisted four middle American teenagers to oppose the Mind Flayer itself in the internationally popular Stranger Things.

Because kids and Fantasy make for such positive pairings, it’s easy to suggest that Portal Runner finds a lot of inspiration in similar territory but on a vastly smaller budget. Nolan (played by Sloane Morgan Siegel) and Mae (Elise Eberle) – the siblings of this occasionally whimsical, occasionally dark adventure – have great chemistry as the film’s mismatched brother-sister pairing, though their relationship starts out as a total mystery: where Nolan’s from, he never had a sister! But as they come to know one another in the context of the film, they quip, snipe, and berate one another just the way a brother and sister would … and, yes, I say this as a guy who has two sisters, thank you very much.

To the picture’s benefit, their constant tete a tete serves as the emotional backbone to Duryee’s picture. As their relationship grows from sibling rivalry to blood relation, the two talents hit a measured, comic stride playing opposite one another, learning not only how to respond to the other’s quirks but also which buttons to push (and when). As a brother, can you imagine Nolan’s delight that the key in this universe to seizing control of the world-hopping phenomenon would be something so blissful as pissing off your sister? When I was a young’un, mom and dad always warned me to stop picking on mine … but – in this cinematic universe – my life would’ve damn neared depended upon me doing just that!

Thankfully, Portal Runner doesn’t stop there, and by its big finish the entire family is on board with the proper sentiments. Matt Shimkus (as the temporally displaced father) shows up as both a villain and a hero when the script requires it. Brian S. Lewis is a bit of a doofus but retains the family’s inventor’s spirit in the guise of Uncle Boon. Carol Roscoe turns in some great work as the mother trying to hold the fractured family safe and together even when it appears science itself is working against all of them. It’s a solid ensemble piece with every player having a purpose to serve here – for good or for evil – but everyone keeps it all family-focused and totally kid-friendly, even when there’s a bit of blood shed along the way.

All of that said, Portal Runner does have some shortcomings for those of us who watch these things closely for a living (as I do). The science as presented here doesn’t always follows the rules it sets forth; while I never hammer a screenwriter for taking any liberties with the webs he or she spins (it’s all fiction, after all), I do expect some explanation when they shift gears, and none is given here. (For example, there are some directional requirements given for the world-hopping to work, but Nolan occasionally heads up or down when West or East are established as precedent.) Also, the film goes for a full twenty-six minutes (I timed it) before offering up any explanation for its curious mirror-hopping set-up sequence; in movie terms, that’s a long time to go before offering your audience some description of the spectacle (one not couched in a character’s narrative), and I would’ve preferred this exposition being sprinkled much earlier. Lastly, there are a few continuity errors (costuming and character locations) that usually don’t catch my eye; but these were pretty obvious and even had me backing the film up at one point to see if I had missed something. (I hadn’t.) Those are never good things, but they’re also not the kind of mishaps that ‘make or break’ an experience for me.

Still, young Siegel gives us an almost Marty McFly performance in a film that only passingly resembles anything in that meatier Back To The Future universe, and it was definitely strong enough to keep my interest for the duration.

Recommended.

I think what sticks with me most about Portal Runner – despite the loose science that runs quick and fast with its own multiverse rules – is that it’s an entirely wholesome family affair, something relatively rare in the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Nolan and Mae are your ordinary brother-and-sister combo thrown into extraordinary circumstances – with even mom-and-dad eventually following suit – and it’s their shared commitment to family that gives this Disneyesque charmer its beating heart. Imperfect maybe … but not implausible, as any scientist will tell you.

In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kairos Productions provided me with a streaming link of Portal Runner (2021) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.