Sunday, February 21, 2016

400 Days (2015)

Warning: there will be spoilerage, or I couldn’t praise a part of the film that deserves praise

Prospective astronauts for a commercial company with big plans Emily (Caity Lotz), Theo (Brandon Routh), Bug (Ben Feldman) and Dvorak (Dane Cook) have agreed to go on a 400 day simulation of deep space flight. They’re going to be buried in a fake space ship below a field, tested by psychologist Emily and confronted with various “surprises”, with no contact to the outside world except for their mission control.

Things don’t go off to a good start, though, for Emily has broken up her engagement to Theo just a few days before the beginning of the experiment, which is totally how you do a psychological experiment, obviously. The alternative wouldn’t have been much better either, with Emily tasked to analyse her own damn fiancée. But I digress.

After that bad start, things become even worse when our heroes soon lose any contact to mission control during some very dramatic shaking of their ship. Nerves become increasingly frayed, Dvorak demonstrates a tendency towards violence and paranoia, and the rest of the team isn’t much more stable either, with hallucinations and other fun stuff abounding. One would expect the would-be astronauts to start killing each other soon, but things take a more peculiar turn when a stranger (whom the characters and the audience first take for a hallucination) manages to scratch his way into the ship, looking half dead, malnourished and ill.

One of the oldest yet still loved (because it actually works pretty well when you know what you’re doing) tricks in the low budget movie director’s (and writer’s) book is to take a couple or two characters, put them into an isolated, cramped environment, and hopefully let the sparks fly. The approach is cost-conscious, it provides a filmmaker with the opportunity to show his skills at building suspense with comparatively simple methods, and it keeps a film from making promises it just can’t deliver on while pushing it to concentrate on only a handful of actors in an intimate space.

This approach can – and does more often than I care to remember indeed does – still go wrong, of course: the wrong acting approach can kill this sort of thing stone dead, the dialogue can be too stilted or too dumb, and the needed concentration can bring out directorial flaws in a particularly stark fashion.

Director and writer Matt Osterman’s 400 Days turns out to not have any of these problems, and is indeed a textbook demonstration of how to do the whole “isolated people go at each other’s throats” thing economically. Even better, Osterman changes up the formula about midway through and lets his characters emerge from their prison into a small piece of a world that has catastrophically changed while they were away. Unless, of course, their emergence is still part of the experiment, something that is given further probability by the plain strangeness of the end of the world they find themselves surrounded by: eternal darkness, the downright weirdness (and potential homicidal mania or cannibalism) of the survivors they encounter, and so on, and so forth. Thanks to its weirdness (and some logistical problems in the script) it would be rather more difficult to believe in this world outside without that doubt in the reality of the characters’ surroundings or in their sanity, but because Osterman plays it as he does, we get the best of both worlds: a world that is feeling wrong, and a reason why it might feel wrong.

In this regard, I found myself also pretty happy with the half open – there are enough bits and pieces spattered around to at least provide enough data for a good guess to what’s actually supposed to be going on – ending. Blankly stating on of the two possibilities of what has happened would make it sound utterly preposterous but keeping it elegantly open to a degree of interpretation will convince a viewer her favoured explanation is actually the right one. And the right explanation can’t be preposterous, obviously. Plus, this also absolves the film from having to go through the whole rigmarole of the final five minute plot twist and info dump while dramatic music plays.

The cast does a decent job, too, without any moments of !ACTING! that can break the tension in this sort of film all too well (though we later get some excellent scenery chewing of the right kind by Tom Cavanagh); as always, Lotz and Routh are much more convincing actors when they are not in Arrow.

Osterman’s direction for its part doesn’t call attention to itself, avoiding the temptations to show off without coming across as blunt. Very much how I like this sort of thing to be directed, unless a film goes for an all out psychedelic freak-out.

Which, all in all, leaves me with a clever, entertaining little movie that’ll not rock the world but certainly rocked my evening.

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