One of the challenges of launching a new science fiction or fantasy universe is explaining all the damn rules that govern it. Infinite, a brisk but largely flavorless blast of comic-bookish origin story boilerplate, wastes no time getting down to that obligatory business. The film lays out its premise over an opening aerial tour of Mexico City, in oddly formal and probably studio mandated voice-over. Never mind that all of this information, plucked from the pages of D. Eric Maikranz’s novel The Reincarnationist Papers, will be reiterated via dialogue later in the movie. Infinite takes no chances on losing anyone—sound logic, perhaps, for a would-be blockbuster with more exposition than story.
The narration comes courtesy of Heinrich Treadway (Dylan O’Brien), who speeds through the car-chase prologue on a mission. The next time we see him, he’s someone else entirely: a Bostony loner lug played by Mark Wahlberg. Heinrich, you see, is now Evan McCauley, who’s shocked to discover that the visions running through his head aren’t symptoms of schizophrenia, as his doctors have long believed, but memories from past lives. Evan is an Infinite, one of a race of eternally reincarnated people who dress like fashion models, congregate in high-tech temple headquarters, and take sides in an endless civil war between different factions of their kind. The good guys, dubbed The Believers, use their centuries of knowledge and experience to aid mankind. The bad guys, helpfully referred to as The Nihilists, want to exterminate the whole species, mostly to end their own constantly rebooting existence.
Wahlberg, who couldn’t convince as a high-school science teacher, would seem an unusual choice to play a man with the wisdom of countless lifetimes. But he’s a fine fit for an undying dude “locked out” of his very long memory bank; the film mostly asks Evan to look vaguely befuddled at his circumstances—a Wahlberg specialty. Scholars in the field of Marky Mark studies might note how neatly Infinite fits into the career of a movie star increasingly obsessed with inserting himself into recent history’s direst dilemmas. What is immorality but a chance to play hero across the ages? In truth, Wahlberg brings what he usually does to prospective franchise fare: wooden tough-guy posturing and the requisite gym time—the same skillset he flexed for director Antoine Fuqua during their last disposable collaboration, Shooter.
The setup isn’t far from last year’s superhero sleeper The Old Guard, except that the heroes here have to switch bodies and re-endure teething every time they go down. That movie was no masterpiece, but it did seem concerned with the logistics and psychological ramifications of its eons-spanning high concept. For all its data dumps, Infinite answers fewer questions than it raises. Is everyone reincarnated, and only the Infinites can remember their past lives? Do they remember everything, or just the most pertinent bits of backstory? The film’s villain, played by a bald and magnificently bearded Chiwetel Ejiofor, has the master plan of a Marvel heavy. (Literally—he’s after an egg-shaped MacGuffin called, uh, The Egg, that he’ll use to… blow everyone into a cloud of ash.) But the big bad’s also the one person on screen who seems to genuinely wrestle with the burden of eternal life (he has the added existential curse of regaining full knowledge and sentience the minute he blips into a new womb), and Ejiofor gives his thirst for the void at least a small spark of melancholy. Perhaps the actor is channeling his own desire to be someplace, anyplace else.
When it isn’t explaining and explaining and explaining some more, Infinite is steering into rudimentary action sequences, proficiently and legibly staged by Fuqua, against a sonic backdrop of generically chunky rock guitar. A little Mission: Impossible here, a little Fast & Furious there, a sword fight on a tumbling aircraft, a car chase through a police station (which sounds cooler than it plays). At least there’s a decent explanation this time for the foolhardy/fearless way people always behave in action movies. Why not jump out of that plane or take that tight turn or race into a spray of bullets if the worst consequence awaiting you is yet another go through puberty?
What Infinite fatally lacks is personality. It’s all sci-fi table setting all the time, racing through introductions and plot points at a mercenary pace, its wheel manned by a star whose default mode for this kind of movie is hunky frowning. Just when you start to wonder if living forever robs you of a sense of humor, in waltzes reliable comic wringer Jason Mantzoukas to hijack the movie for a few scenes with his usual I-can’t-believe-I-landed-this-gig cheekiness (plus some blatant ADR zingers). He seems to have walked in from a whole other film—a more playful and less businesslike one, likely a better one. Still, his presence makes a certain thematic sense: Here’s another actor, like Mark Wahlberg, who can’t help but just be himself on screen, like a soul passing from one character to the next, each new performance a kind of reincarnation.