Thursday, September 18, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: As Above, So Below

As Above, So Below was written by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle. It was also directed by John Erick Dowdle.

Dowdle also directed the 2008 movie Quarantine, an unnecessary remake of 2007 Spanish film [REC]. Both it and As Above, So Below are found footage films. Dowdle really needs to try branching out from this genre and shoot a normal movie.

The film's plot, which is equal parts The Descent, National Treasure and Event Horizon, is all too familiar. The real-life Paris Catacombs setting is a plus though, giving the movie an unsettling and genuinely creepy sense of dread. It's a welcome change from the usual haunted house or spooky forest background. 

Unfortunately all that atmosphere is wasted on a story that has a promising start but sputters and dies by the third act. If they'd have ditched the found footage angle and gone with a tighter script and a better director it could have been a cool little horror film.


The Plot:
Scarlett Marlowe is a perky young alchemy scholar, which is apparently a thing. She's obsessed with continuing the work of her late father, who was searching for the Philosopher's Stone, the legendary artifact that can transmute elements and grant eternal life. You know, the same thing they were looking for in the first Harry Potter film.

Scarlett contacts her ex boyfriend George, who apparently can't afford a last name, in order to have him translate an ancient clue that will lead her to the Stone. The two determine that it's located somewhere in the maze-like Catacombs beneath Paris.

They hire a local guide named Papillon (that means butterfly!) and the team enters the Catacombs. As they descend, they all begin encountering bizarre apparitions that reflect their deepest fears. The team members are picked off one by one as their path is sealed behind them, forcing them deeper and deeper into the earth.

• I had a sneaking suspicion this was going to be another found footage film, and sure enough I was right. The subject matter– exploring the cave-like Catacombs– is positively ripe for it. 

As long-time readers know, I cannot stand found footage films. Yes, the technique can give your story a sense of immediacy and realism, but it's also the cheapest way possible to shoot a movie. With found footage you don't need professional cameras, lighting, cinematography, music or even actors. That's why studios love pumping out these movies– even if they're not a big hit they spend so little on them that they're guaranteed to make a profit.

My main beef with these kinds of films is that they make no sense. The director has to bend over backwards to try and explain why anyone would be standing there filming a monster instead of running for their life like a sane person would. They do make an attempt in this movie to explain how we're seeing everything by giving all the characters head-mounted cameras. Nice try, but it doesn't work.

The operative word in found footage is "found." We're supposed to be watching video that someone discovered after the fact. Here we keep switching from one person's camera feed to another, seemingly on the fly. So who's doing all this live editing, pray tell? Is there some director following them around underground? 

A couple of the cameras are even lost when the characters they're attached to are killed, and are left behind in the Catacombs. So how are we able to see their footage at all? How was it "found?" See what I'm getting at? The director doesn't even understand his own genre, and can't be bothered to play by its rules.

• Inside a Paris museum, Scarlett looks for clues on 
famed alchemist Nicholas Flamel's headstone. When she doesn't find anything on the front, she yanks it off the wall (!), turns it over and miraculously discovers a riddle inscribed on the back of the stone.

Flamel's headstone has been around for 600 years, and in all that time no one ever thought to take a peek at the back of it until now? Yes, she had to use some kind of chemical to reveal the inscription, but c'mon... I have a hard time believing she's the first to think of checking the back. I guess Scarlett's just that good.

It's also a bit unbelievable that she could simply walk up to a priceless museum artifact and pull it off the wall without being arrested.

Once Scarlett finds the riddle she sees it's written in Aramaic, which unfortunately she doesn't speak. Luckily for her, George understands the language and is able to read it. He translates it into a riddle that sounds remarkably like the Green Lantern Oath. 

The most amazing thing about all this is that he translates the riddle into English that still manages to rhyme! And he does this on the fly, in just a few seconds. George must be an incredible translator indeed. 

Are you flipping kidding me? There's no way in hell those Aramaic words could possibly have English equivalents that rhyme. This idiocy pulled me right out of the movie for the next few minutes.

• As the team is about to illegally enter the Catacombs, their guide Papillon is tacked by a policeman. The team flees into the tunnel, and Papillon tosses a couple of "bombs" that explode and collapse the entrance, sealing them inside.

First of all these so-called bombs make an anemic "poof," just slightly louder than the average firecracker. Secondly, we never actually see the entrance collapse, we just hear a muffled explosion as a puff of smoke drifts around the corner. I'm assuming this was done because the crew couldn't set off a real explosive inside the Catacombs. That would probably be a bad thing.

Once the entrance is sealed, that's that! The police completely give up and make no attempt at further pursuit. Just like the cops in Grand Theft Auto V

• There are some truly creepy elements inside the Catacombs, courtesy of objects that can't possibly exist there. Things like the ringing telephone, the dusty piano and the flaming car.

It's even more impressive when you realize that the majority of the movie was filmed in the actual Catacombs, meaning they had to somehow drag a piano down into them.

• While traipsing through the tunnels, a large CGI crack suddenly appears in the ceiling. George looks up and says, "Is that bad?" Only if you're uncomfortable with hundreds of feet of rock pressing against your chest, George.

• Papillon refuses to enter a particular tunnel in the Catacombs, saying his friend "The Mole" entered it two years ago and never returned.

A few minutes later the team encounters The Mole, who apparently survived. I'm assuming The Mole is one of the illusions. He pretty much has to be, right? They said if they ran out of batteries or water in the Catacombs they're dead, and he's supposedly been down there for two years. So I'm guessing he's not real.

• In most movies in which a person's deepest fear manifests itself, they are the only one who can see it. Here everyone can see everyone else's fears made real. 

• The team eventually finds a room filled with treasure, which also contains the Philospher's Stone. Their actions cause the entrance to the room to be sealed off, seemingly trapping them. Scarlett finds a portal in the floor, and once they pass through it they find themselves inside a mirror image of the Catacombs. An evil, twisted mirror image. They reason that since everything here is a dark reflection of what came before, the only way back up is to go down. I guess it's Bizarro World logic.

This symmetry is an interesting idea– as above, so below, right? Unfortunately the whole reflection concept is muddled and very poorly explained. In fact I didn't even realize that's what was happening while watching the film– I only learned this after the fact while researching the movie.

• Scarlett finds the Philosopher's Stone in the treasure room and pries it out of the wall. A few minutes later, Souxie, one of her fellow explorers, seriously injures her arm. Scarlett uses the power of the Stone to heal her wound in seconds.

After going down through many levels, George is also seriously wounded. Scarlett tries to heal him with the stone as well, but it doesn't work. She realizes the Stone is a fake, and races back to the treasure room to find the true one. 

Um... if the stone is a fake, then how the hell did it heal Souxie's arm?

Then even though it seemingly took them hours to pass through these lower levels, Scarlett covers the distance back in less than a minute. Amazing! Maybe the magic found footage camera edited this scene for us?

Once she's back in the treasure room, she replaces the fake Philosopher's Stone and stares at her face reflected in a dirty mirror. A look of realization crosses her face and she runs the gauntlet back to where she left George (in less than a minute again). She kisses him and he's instantly healed. 

So what the hell happened here? I think maybe looking in the mirror made her realize the healing power was somehow inside her? Or the mirror transferred the power into her? Or maybe everyone has the power to heal while inside the Catacombs? Honestly I'm not sure what the filmmakers were trying to say here.

• At the end of the movie, the three survivors of the team emerge from the Catacombs, pause a moment to catch their breath, then slowly and numbly stumble off screen in different directions. Much the same way the audience exited the theater. Burn!

As Above, So Below has a few genuinely creepy moments and an impressive location, but it's ultimately not enough to save the derivative and muddled story. I give it a C+.

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