Eli represents an easy day at the office for the Netflix algorithm. It’s Halloween so let’s make a horror. Throw in a few different flavours of horror though, since not everyone likes ghosts. Ever notice how Vera Farmiga is in all scary films these days? Get someone who looks like her. And someone from a popular Netflix show. We’ll stick their face on the homepage.
All of these ingredients will then be put on the assembly line and smushed together into a movie-like shape, into something mediocre but functional, perfect background noise to a low-key Halloween party. Hey, don’t judge. The algorithm says you’ll like it.
Eli (Charlie Shotwell) is a young boy with a mysterious disease that makes his skin burn whenever it comes into contact with the outside world. His parents (Kelly Reilly, Max Martini) protect him the best they can, going so far as to dress him up in some kind of spacesuit every time he has to leave the house. Their only hope is Dr. Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor), a “miracle worker” who has treated, and cured, many children with Eli’s condition.
After a long drive, the family arrive at Horn’s bizarrely isolated treatment facility. His parents greet the doctor warmly but Eli can’t help but be suspicious of her. Maybe because of how evasive and strange she acts around him. Maybe because of the cold stares he gets from her staff. Maybe because her clinic looks like (and soon turns out to be) a haunted house.
This sets up a familiar and instantly tiresome cycle of Eli seeing ghosts, telling the adults about the ghosts, the adults not believing him and Eli seeing ghosts again. The doctor shoos away his concerns, saying that delusions are just a side effect of his treatment. Not even his new friend Haley (Sadie Sink, Max from Stranger Things) believes him, though she is definitely suspicious of Dr. Horn. She says that bad things happened to the previous kids who stayed in the clinic. Turns out the doctor may not be the miracle worker she’s supposed to be.
Directed by Irishman Ciaran Foy (Sinister 2), Eli is content to spend the majority of its runtime in the shallow end of its genre, doling out tired jump scares prefaced by predictable fake outs. Visually, it’s fine. If you’ve seen any horror film since The Conjuring, you know what you’re in for. The cast know what they’re in for too, doing just enough and not a bit more, which is a shame since the film desperately needs one big, campy, scenery-chewing performance to put some colour in its cheeks.
Instead, we have to wait until the last 15 minutes for things to finally become entertaining. That’s when the story takes a ridiculously silly turn, climbing out of the shallow end to do a cannonball in the deep. Love it or hate it, this ending is pure article-bait and will be the only real discussion point to come out of Eli, with everything preceding it being so dull that nobody will want to relive it by talking about it.
One wonders if that was part of the Netflix’s plan all along, since nothing gets attention like a divisive ending. I wouldn’t put it past the algorithm, or doubt that its assembly line has crushed together yet another critically-panned but demographic-friendly hit.