'Alice' review: Alice doesn't live in the 1800s anymore
Keke Palmer stars in blaxploitation homage that falls flat.
An absurd revenge fantasy that barely even tries to make sense, "Alice" is both an old-times-secretly-exist-in-non-old-times thriller and a blaxploitation homage that doesn't handle either of its influences particularly well.
Keke Palmer plays the title character, who is born and raised on a 19th-century Georgia plantation where she's part of the "domestic livestock" — read: army of slaves — working for tyrannical owner Paul (a sweaty, seething Jonny Lee Miller).
When she finally breaks free of the property, she stumbles onto a busy highway where she's almost mashed by a semitruck. A semitruck? Yes, it turns out it's 1973, and everything Alice has ever known and lived has been an elaborate, evil lie.
In the past, thrillers such as "Antebellum" and M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" have used that timeframe gotcha as an endpoint. Here it's only the beginning, as Alice is awoken to '70s politics and the civil rights movement, and sees powerful Black women such as Pam Grier as icons who help power her mission of vengeance against her oppressors.
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But "Alice" connects these dots way too quickly. Alice is barely given time to grapple with the mental whiplash of learning the truth of her world — let alone the existence of modern-to-1973 technology — before she's plotting her revenge, with the help of the kindly Frank (Common), the truckdriver and former Black Panther who almost plowed her over on the highway. Frank drops her off at a hospital but whisks her away and brings her to his home when he sees a trip to the psych ward in her future. (Given the circumstances, a professional mental evaluation might not have been the worst fate.)
Writer-director Krystin Ver Linden, making her feature film debut, could have turned "Alice" into a proudly feminist girl power romp, but that would have played harshly against the somber, grim tone she strikes in the early scenes depicting the horrors of slavery. Instead she plays it straight and "Alice" falls victim to its own implausibility and lack of logic. At least Frank, in an effort to bring her up to speed with the present, introduces Alice to the pleasures of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." If it was a crash course in the sound and spirit of 1973 that he sought, he couldn't have done much better.
Rated R: for some violence and language
Running time: 99 minutes