It’s been a promising year for Maltese cinema, with political thriller A Viper’s Pit, arthouse-breakout Luzzu, and the recent historical drama Blood on the Crown. Now, The Way Back, a new miniseries, is also getting the big-screen treatment, showing three episodes back to back at Eden Cinemas.
The Way Back, created by Maria Grech and Dylan Odom, is a whole new flavour to other local productions. While the show is set on our island and does have sporadic use of Maltese, it feels as though it exists in a twilight zone between Malta and Stephen King’s Maine. In fact, some characters even deliver their lines with an American twang.
It’s a series that wears its inspirations on its sleeves, from Back to the Future to Goosebumps. The predominant influence is clearly Stranger Things, not only in its retro stylings but also in its plot: a group of youngsters, finding themselves stranded in a house in the woods, encounter a strange girl with possibly supernatural abilities, and a connection to a shady scientific organization.
Homage veers close to derivative, and, by now, 80s Nostalgia has become a well-trodden path. Nevertheless, it’s commendable for what is clearly a low-budget affair to have such crowd-pleasing, popcorn-munching ambitions, and it’s made with an obvious affection for what it’s referencing.
However, the series gets bogged down in a convoluted time-bending plot and doesn’t lay it out clearly enough to follow. As episode 3 lurches into running, shouting, and exposition-dumps, it all feels too muddled to care. This isn’t helped by a frustrating sound mix that smothers dialogue with a nonstop score, as well as some very choppy editing. At points, it seems as though the show is having a sugar rush from the product-placement Kinnie and is swerving all over the place.
The cinematography is something of a mixed bag. There are some stunning shots in the daylight, bathed in an Amblin-esque golden light. When it comes to the numerous night scenes, though, the shots often look murky and underlit. Perhaps this is a case where the small screen may benefit over the big.
The leads are portrayed by a group of bright up-and-comers, who all look as though they’re having a blast. However, some of the performances feel as though they belong more in a student film than they do in a ‘mainstream’ series. Sean Azzopardi rather overplays the lead role of Peter, while Jeremy Grech’s portrayal of the enigmatic Jeremy swings wildly in tone, his wacky introduction seeming like a scrapped Monty Python sketch. Adam Ryan and Kay Dimech are the most natural, while Adriel Camilleri tries his best with the comic relief role, yet fails to make the rather unfunny material land.
Despite the flaws of the series, there’s a lot here that’s promising. Young director Maria Grech is clearly a talent to watch, with a very keen sense of style (one character’s flashback to a car accident, for example, is hugely original in its execution). The series also succeeds in creating a textured world, with excellent set design and use of locations. Season 1 may stumble as it tries to run before it can walk, but we’d be very excited to see where the creators and their team take us next.
A stylish love letter to 80s Cinema, that, unfortunately, gets marred by jumbled storytelling and clumsy technique. Still, you may find its enthusiasm infectious and this serves as an intriguing taster for Season 2.
Bruce Micallef Eynaud is the creative director at VSQUARED and is also a filmmaker, working mainly in commercials and short films. He’s also a movie geek with an MA in Film Studies. His favourite filmmakers are Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson and Richard Linklater.